When Christiane D. Leach talks about her most recent project, a solo album called Obliquity of the Ecliptic, she does so in a way that connects music and art back to a tangled-up world, one deeper than rock stardom and pop-icon superficiality. The title itself draws from astronomy, and references the axis that runs through all of us, a pole on which the directions of nature pull us toward one side of a spiritual life or another. OOTE continually begs the question: Which way are you flipping on the axis?
For Leach -- a painter, playwright and performer, who often goes simply by "Christiane D." -- the album's creation was a journey ripe with reinvention. She has been a gravitational and highly respected presence in the arts community for more than a decade, exhibiting her work in galleries and fronting the band Soma Mestizo, but she came to a pivotal point in the late 2000s.
Her own place on the axis was being challenged: There were struggles with illness. ("I worked in industrial chemical poisoning so it messed with my memory," she says. "Which is why I had to stop doing performance poetry -- because I couldn't remember my poems.") Then there was the undying need to create, and the frustrations that go along with creative pursuits. The art-world swirl of grant writing, constant rehearsals and having to perpetually switch gears -- the grueling nature of "intake, intake, output, output" -- took a toll on her body and her creativity, and left her in dire need of a hiatus.
"I was still out performing things, but I stopped creating things," she says. "I felt I was chasing funds and grants and I was just throwing up embryos and calling it art, never giving myself a chance to develop something."
The magnetism of her work was missed and her hiatus left a void in the community.
"It took three to four years to kind of figure it out," she recalls. "And then I kept bumping into friends who were kind of whispering in my ear, 'Christiane, you're really gonna need to put out something.'"
Those pushes and shoves, along with her innate need to generate serious works of art, finally led to Leach's re-emergence. While she had been writing songs with friend (and OOTE co-producer) John Purse for some time, it was a brief conversation with Interscope Records that prompted her to resurface. Nothing concrete came of those talks, but the idea of a solo career, which had been coming in the form of whispers from friends, turned more serious, and Leach applied for an August Wilson Center Fellowship. The fellowship -- which she received -- was apropos to where she was in her artistic life.
"A lot of that fellowship is based around the question, 'Are you at a point in your art career where you are changing and you are going in a full different direction?' The shifting gears idea," she says, connecting back to the flux that she lives and creates through. "This was kind of a big, different direction."
As she's always been the type of artist who's serious about her work rather than simply trying to attract attention, the fellowship allowed Leach the opportunity to do things her way. While she admits it's her nature to be malleable to the ideas and inspiration of others, the fellowship permitted a certain sense of much-needed selfishness in her work.
"This was really just what I wanted," she says. "I really needed to learn how to just do my own thing."
OOTE speaks timelessly, with a spiritual backbone and genre-bending sound (Leach neologically deems her genre "esque"), but also alludes to our current world with hints of gender politics and class struggle.
Sonically, the album warps through punk-rock aesthetics, hip-hop montage, rock 'n' roll power and inflections of jazz free-spiritedness, and does so with touches from a sampling of Pittsburgh talent. Leach's longtime collaborator from her Soma Mestizo days, Herman "Soy Sos" Pearl, lent production skills as did Noel Hefele and Beau DeMont; the bits of hip hop feature poetics from emcees Jack Wilson and Dane Delloyld Cosby.
Leach, as a visual artist, puts just as much emphasis on the visual elements associated with her work as she does the music. The album art's imagery denotes a redefinition of femininity, or an attempt to create a gender void -- a reaction to pop music's currency of glitz and glamazon divas.
"I chose body-paint scenarios to represent two inner kind of beings," she explains. "Inner spaces of the shaman, natural kind of energy and the robotic, techno kind of energy.
"The industry today, with women, is all about spectacle. It has gone backwards for me, in a sense where it's more and more about looks," she explains. "Which is why there are no looks [in the art with OOTE]. There's just these two representations of energies. You don't really see my face. It's not about my face, and it's not about my body, it's about the body of work."
Editor's note: After press time, the official release of the CD version of Obliquity of the Ecliptic was pushed back to January. However, the Shadow Lounge show on Friday, Nov. 25 will go on as planned, and download cards will be available.
CHRISTIANE D. CD RELEASE with DJ SELECTA. 7 p.m. Fri., Nov. 25. Shadow Lounge, 5972 Baum Blvd., East Liberty. $10. 412-363-8277 or www.shadowlounge.net