Despite its rather unstable history, the Czech Republic has held onto one aspect of its identity — the lion adorning its national emblem — since medieval times. No matter who ruled the country, that symbol of valor reminded its citizens to stay brave and strong. The Czech lion also resonates with Dallas electro-pop-soul artist LEV, who so loves those “fierce and noble and courageous” cats, she has an artful rendering of one permanently inked on her right wrist.
But LEV (aka Holly Peyton) was unaware of that nation’s sympatico symbol until she began a search for her musical identity. As she and her husband hunted for monikers like a pair of expectant parents, he stumbled upon the Czech word for lion. She loved it.
“When it comes to making music, I strive to be fierce and noble and courageous, too,” LEV explains. She nails those intentions completely on her new EP, Fear No Evil, releasing in May on Vintage Lion Records. Elegantly produced by Eric Neal (Fishing for Comets) and mixed by engineer Dave Castell (whose credits include Blue October, the Toadies and Bowling for Soup) these five tracks herald the arrival of a formidable vocal and songwriting talent, one who’s not afraid to stay true to her musical vision.
Full of sensuous grooves seamlessly integrated with dance beats and synth sounds, these songs carry what Peyton accurately describes as “an electronic ‘80s pop vibe” — reminiscent, but not retro; evocative, but not copy-cat. Funky, soulful and sonically beautiful, Fear No Evil is old-school in one significant way: It starts and ends with words and melody, sealed in pretty envelopes of sound that enhance both. There are no traces of AutoTune or other aural assaults we’ve learned to endure; that alluring voice you hear in these songs clearly is the real deal.
LEV’s history begins in the small East Texas town of Tyler, where Peyton grew up — and became enthralled by ‘70s disco and ‘80s synth-pop, along with Fleetwood Mac, New Radicals, the Verve, U2 and other artists. “I love anything with harmonies; that’s what I was most drawn to as a child, which is why my songs are filled with them,” she says. “I love Michael Jackson, of course, and how he used simple drum beats, catchy bass and voice one-offs [his famous vocal punctuations] to create the catchiest songs ever. They just make you want to dance.”
Those sensibilities are well reflected in each track; “Shadow” and “Try,” for example, carry beguiling hints of early-era Madonna, though listeners also will detect thoroughly modern references, too.
“Shadow,” the opening track, exudes empowerment, announcing itself with percussion that pulsates like the heartbeats of animals roaming Africa’s savannah. Yet it began, Peyton says, as a struggle for confidence. “It was written about a time where I put myself behind a shadow and started getting too comfortable there. Even though I was dying to come out of that shadow and be the person I knew I was, I started letting the fear of ‘I can’t’ keep me back. Months after I wrote this song, I realized my own shadow was what was standing in my way. Once I decided to step out of the background into the open, everything started to change.”
Several years ago, Peyton got an opportunity she’d dreamed of since childhood: a chance to record a solo album. The self-taught songwriter and guitar player was introduced to a producer in Nashville, where she found herself recording country-pop songs. She was close to signing a contract when she realized she’d also be signing away her soul; the music just didn’t feel right.
“I was young, and because these opportunities were something I never imagined would happen, I was letting people tell me what my music should sound like,” she reflects. “But whole time I was recording, I was miserable inside.” A sage advisor told her to follow her heart; she walked away from the deal — and, she feared, her only chance at musical success. “I put my guitar away. I didn’t even want to look at it,” she confesses. “It was a weird wounding, in a way, to be with it, because you’re on this plateau and then you just come off and you’re nothing again.”
Her then-future husband encouraged her to try again. “He told me, ‘Nothing bad comes from trying. Just start writing what you want to hear.’” And so she did. A fan of electronic pop, she wrote with movement in mind. Even though she composes on acoustic guitar, she hears her songs fully formed. Neal was able to hear them the same way, and translate them into polished gems.
LEV’s lyrics and dynamic vocals could stand on their own even if stripped bare (as they are when she performs the occasional solo acoustic set), but multi-instrumentalist Neal’s cascading keyboards and drummer-bassist Matt Trimble’s well-placed beats, melded with her lushly layered vocals, give these songs momentum that does indeed ignite an insistent urge to move. With the addition of electric guitarist Stephen Goodson to the performing lineup, LEV — a name also chosen for its simplicity — has begun hitting stages throughout Texas.