Local bass player Mai Leisz creates instrumental interpretation of ‘Guinnevere’
It was June 14, 2015. Everything was going terribly wrong that day in Stockholm for bass player Mai Leisz and singer-songwriter Doug Seegers.
When they tried to perform in the subway or on the street, the police kicked them out. And when they tried to go to Stockholm’s Old Town district, they took the wrong subway and got on the wrong street.
“When we got to Old Town, after 10 minutes of playing, it started to rain,” Mrs. Leisz said.
But suddenly everything went right.
For one thing, her future husband walked by and met her.
For another, that same man, guitarist Greg Leisz, was impressed with Mrs. Leisz’ and Mr. Seeger’s performance and introduced them to Jackson Browne, who was touring in Stockholm.
“The next day, Doug and I went on stage with Jackson,” Mrs. Leisz, a Santa Barbara area resident, told the News-Press. “That started this whole whirlwind for me, coming from a tiny island in Estonia, ending up in Los Angeles and playing with all my musical heroes. It’s very humbling.”
Mrs. Leisz, a native of Estonia, went on to play bass in tours since 2017 with Santa Ynez Valley rock legend David Crosby. That has led to her latest project: her new instrumental cover of the melodic and intricate Crosby, Stills & Nash classic “Guinnevere.”
Mrs. Leisz, 32, is releasing the single today on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon. Napster and Deezer, where she expects downloads will be inexpensive.
Mrs. Leisz rearranged the popular song for her fretless bass and recorded it with electric guitarist Michael Landau, drummer Gary Novak and Mr. Leisz, who played both the electric and acoustic guitars in the recording.
Mrs. Leisz praised the original recording of the song from Crosby, Stills & Nash’s self-titled 1968 debut album.
Mr. Crosby wrote the words and music for the song, which fans love for its peaceful yet poignant melody, distinct lyrics, and unexpected chords and time signatures. Mr. Crosby has said that the lyrics, which talks about Guinnevere’s golden hair and green eyes, refer to three women he knew: singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell; Mr. Crosby’s girlfriend Christine Hinton, who died in 1969 in a collision; and a third woman he has declined to reveal.
Mrs. Leiz noted that today, Mr. Crosby dedicates his performances of “Guinnevere” to his longtime wife Jan.
The song remains a hit among fans and musicians.
“I think there have been quite a few covers that include Miles Davis’ version from the ’70s,” Mrs. Leisz said. “But you know, every time I’ve played that song with Crosby — hundreds of times — the song always takes my breath away.”
Previously, Mrs. Leisz had only released original music. But she said she wanted to pay homage to Mr. Crosby for being a life-changing force for her and decided “Guinnevere” was the obvious choice.
“It’s an incredible composition, and the song has so much room for interpretation,” Mrs. Leisz said. “I really wanted to open it up a little and reharmonize a little. I took Crosby’s main melody. I tried to find chords that would work with the same melody.
“I’m using the original material more than Miles Davis did in his version,” Mrs. Leisz said. “I wanted to write something that would stay true to and respectful of the original song, yet have my own handwriting in the arrangement.”
She noted she wanted to emphasize the song’s distinct acoustic guitar sound. For that, she got help from Mr. Crosby, who sang and played the acoustic guitar in the original 1968 recording. Mr. Crosby taught Mr. Leisz the guitar part, which Mrs. Leisz noted meant a lot to her husband.
Mrs. Leisz’s love for music started at a young age. In fact, her mother tried to encourage that appreciation when she was pregnant with her.
“My mom put earphones on her belly and played me Vivaldi,” said Mrs. Leisz, who was born on the island of Saaremaa in Estonia.
“I started playing the violin at a very early age. I think I was 5 or 6 years old,” said Mrs. Leisz, who switched to the bass at age 16 when the bassist in her jazz band 2+2=5 quit. (Mrs. Leisz previously played violin in that group.)
In 2010, she moved to Sweden and studied at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, where she earned her bachelor’s in 2014 and completed her studies for her master’s. In 2016, she was awarded the Alice Babs Jazz Stipendium, one of Sweden’s most prestigious jazz awards.
While in Sweden, she played with various jazz and pop artists and formed her jazz-fusion band, MaiGroup, which released three albums.
In 2015, she came to Mr. Crosby’s attention after Mr. Leisz played on Mrs. Leisz’s album “You,” which she recorded with MaiGroup. Mr. Leisz gave a copy of “You” to Mr. Crosby, who was impressed with her musicianship.
That same year, Mr. Crosby’s son and producer, James Raymond, invited Mrs. Leisz to attend Crosby, Stills & Nash concert in Oslo, Norway, where she met Mr. Crosby backstage.
Mrs. Leisz said she was nervous about meeting the rock legend.
“I was probably shaking on the inside, but I tried to be cool on the outside,” she said. “I was probably scared to death. But Crosby has this amazing ability to make everyone feel so comfortable and welcome. As soon as we started talking, it felt like we had known each other for years.”
Soon she was in the studio putting down the bass tracks for Mr. Crosby’s solo album “Sky Trails.” And in 2016, she co-wrote the album’s track, “Here It’s Almost Sunset” with Mr. Crosby, and the album was released in 2017.
Mrs. Leisz continued her education with the Royal College of Music during her first tour with Mr. Crosby in 2017. She defended her master’s thesis on Skype on her laptop overnight while on the tour’s bus from Texas to Tennessee. “In the morning when we reached Memphis, I got my degree.”
Mrs. Leisz, who moved to the Santa Barbara area in 2018 and married Mr. Leisz that year, released five original singles in 2020 with her husband, Mr. Landau and Mr. Novak. She also has recently collaborated with Karla Bonoff, Richard Stekol, Bill Frisell, Charles Lloyd and Santa Barbara rock legend Michael McDonald, a former member of the Doobie Brothers.
Mrs. Leisz said she has a lot of respect for rock history.
“When I was just starting out my studies, I was listening to whatever the new stuff was, but I had a teacher who was always telling me, ‘Go to the fountain.’ I went digging deep into all these legends. You start recognizing all the young people are copying them or getting inspiration or ideas from the earlier generation.”