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The Leonas Offer a Feminist Take on the Garden of Eden with New LP Forbidden Fruit 

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CHRIS BAUER
  • Photo by Chris Bauer

Few human stories are as fundamental, or as fundamentally troubling, as the myth of Adam and Eve's expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The lessons set forth in the book of Genesis — that knowledge led to a fall from grace, that a loving God would expel his creation — have long swam in the minds of Sunday school students and fueled the pens of writers, poets and musicians. On its new LP Forbidden Fruit, local folk duo the Leonas have taken the bones of that story and used it as a meditation on faith, feminism and the places where the two collide.

The duo comprises Steph Plant (vocals, guitar and banjo) and Sarah Vie (vocals and violin) and save for some light percussion and upright bass, these songs live and breathe on the interplay between their voices and their acoustic instruments. The two were friends from their time at nearby Greenville College, a Christian university in southern Illinois, and began playing together last year.

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On Forbidden Fruit, the Leonas recast the story of the fall of man by focusing on Eve, the woman often relegated to the sidelines. "The reason that we were so attracted to the creation story is because of how minimal a role Eve plays in the story and how her character is demonized," says Vie. "That opening story to the Bible sets the tone for women to be background or marginalized in the story, or dependent on other characters to exist. It's a trope that carries out in lots of other stories too. I wanted to see Eve as a more dominant character. I wanted to see her actualize herself. I wanted to see the fruit as a different meaning."

The album is connected by the "Forbidden Fruit" trilogy, a set of songs that dot the beginning, middle and end of the set. On the trilogy and throughout all eight songs collected here, Plant and Vie make a lot out of a little, needing little more than their steady harmonies and spare but stately instrumentation to sketch the outlines of these songs. The writing was often done in tandem, and the oft-impressionistic lyrics owe less to Biblical passages than the women's own experiences.

"We've had to reimagine our own relationship with those things because there is a lot of baggage there," says Plant. "We're kind of rethinking how we want to interpret some of these ideas."

"Steph and I both grew up in very religious homes, so that's part of our identity," continues Vie. "Part of our understanding of the world is interwoven with stories in the Biblical narrative." The band's bio notes that its stories are inspired from "familiar myths and hymns," and for the songs on this album, Vie says that she and Plant are "taking liberty with stories that were told to us as hard fact."

"We wove our own personal stories into it," she adds.

Some of those hymns reveal themselves literally on the Leonas' records, as Plant and Vie use their shared faith background and religious upbringing in sound as well as in content. On last year's Peace EP, the pair turned in spirited versions of the hymns "Simple Gifts" and "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," though on the new album the singers take more liberty with the song's lyrics. On Forbidden Fruit "The River" is performed a cappella, and it takes its bones from the spiritual "Down to the River to Pray" (best known to secular audiences from O Brother, Where Art Thou?). But rather than use the song as a call to communion and absolution, the Leonas focus on the depth and permanence of their perceived sin — in this case, a young girl's burgeoning sexuality.

Several songs speak to the intersection of religious faith and feminine identity; the second track, "Girl," is a fitting follow-up to the opener, as the titular "girl" is given a litany of instructions from a force that purports to protect her but instead limits her access to her sexuality, freedom and identity. On this album, those concepts of feminine identity are central to the Leonas' message.

"I feel like Sarah and I want to achieve a certain amount of feminine electricity with our music," says Plant. "We enjoy reaching down deep inside what it means to be a modern woman. There are a lot of people who really get excited about that; it's something our music has leant itself to because our music brings up those excited feelings."

Both Plant and Vie speak of their continuing faith journeys and their interest in accessing a spirituality that has grown along with them. But with the Leonas, Plant says they are doing it in a different manner than they did as "youth-group kids."

"I have to say, harmonizing is one of the most spiritual things you can do," says Plant. "It makes you feel united with humanity; it makes you feel woven into other beautiful people. It definitely elevates my musical experience to sing with other people."

Stream the album in full below:

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