Seven years ago, in hopes of getting her musical career headed in a better direction, then twenty-three-year-old Lesli Wood moved to Seattle from Pontiac, a suburb of Detroit. She wanted a more liberal city, where her feminism and politics would mesh better. Seattle offered that, plus an opportunity to explore her music. Wood began busking on Fourth Avenue, barely able to play guitar (she didn’t regularly begin playing until she moved to Seattle, although she had been involved in music since age three), wrote “horrible” songs, played every possible open mic, and made a demo, trying to figure out her style and vocals in the process. Nonetheless, she became ensconced in the Seattle music scene. Now, it’s paying off. And it matters.
“I think Lesli does a lot for the music community here and I don’t think she’s really recognized for that yet,” soft-spoken bass player Matt Menovcik says. “I think Lesli has a lot of great things to say and a really powerful way of saying them.” She’s known Menovcik for fourteen years now, currently making music three-fold with him (Ms. Led, his band Saeta, and their guitar-and-accordion two-piece Roxy and Clark). Menovcik, the soul of Saeta, met Wood at Wayne State University in Detroit. Two years after she moved to Seattle, he did the same. They formed a two-piece called lesliwood shortly thereafter, Menovcik drumming to her vocals and acoustic guitar, filling sweet-smelling coffee shops with a sentimental and wholesome sound while producing two albums: “That Night” (1999) and “Ms. Led” (2000).
“At some point, I decided that playing electric guitar was going to be the next big step,” Wood says. As her and Menovcik progressed musically, they decided they needed a full band to truly get lesliwood going. “I think we both realized that the sound would be better served by a proper band, rather than the coffee shop set-up we were using at the time,” Wood says. “I wanted to have a mostly female band.” Menovcik moved to bass, Stephanie Hasselman became the drummer, and Peg Wood (no relation) became the second guitarist. The four practiced a lot; wrote songs; toured; and, eventually, recorded “Afternoon in Central Park,” still under the moniker lesliwood. “Afternoon” solidified them as a band.
To fully be a band, though, Peg Wood thought they needed to change the band’s name. “I was reluctant because we had been playing under that name,” Lesli says. Menovcik insisted on keeping the original name, too. “This was the first sort of democracy idea [in the band],” Lesli says. “I really had a lot to learn about being in a band because I had been a singer/songwriter with people backing me up, but I had never technically been in a band. I was used to doing everything. If you’re going to be in a band with three other people, they wanna do things too.”
The band brainstormed on a name. They wanted something that was feminist and political. For two weeks, they couldn’t agree on a name. Then Menovcik came upon an idea: “What about Ms. Led?” People had already associated the name with lesliwood because it was the name of the second album Wood and Menovcik created. “And it fits with the feminist identity,” Lesli says. The light bulbs went off and Ms. Led became official in September of 2002.
By December, “Afternoon in Central Park” was released under Ms. Led, a power-pop punk rock band with passion, intensity, and politics, a band Peg said was “slightly influenced by surf, rockabilly, (and) new wave.” Their popularity took off with the album. “We had no idea that we were going to get that good of a response,” Lesli says. “KEXP picked it up. We started getting really great reviews.” They played gigs like Ladyfest, the Capitol Hill Block Party, and, in the summer of 2003, Bumbershoot. Things were clicking; momentum was building. Ms. Led was on its way until the Election Year hit, bringing with it Multiple Sclerosis.
Lesli’s first attack was in January. Her hands went numb while at the public defender’s office, where she was interning for credit in law school. After a week of tests, a brain MRI revealed white spots all over her brain. They were lesions: patches of neurons, which communicate signals within the central nervous system (and the rest of the body), stripped of their myelin, which insulates neurons and is responsible for increasing the speed of nerve signals. When damaged, neurons cannot function efficiently. Symptoms vary, but may include bladder dysfunction, vision and memory problems, and slurred speech.
Lesli, with relapse and remitting MS (one of four types of the disease), progressively got worse, then depressed. She could barely walk. It was like her body was sleeping. She endured three-day steroid treatments via IV. All this while in three bands, attending law school, and working for the public defender. “You’re really tired having MS,” Wood says. “And you need a lot of sleep. I don’t have time to sleep. So I decided to sort of take my own approach to MS. I just sort of let my body know that this is all I can do; I can only get this much sleep and it’s going to have to deal with it; and so far, so good.”
The cause of MS is unknown. Its rate of occurrence is higher in women than men, particularly women in their late 20s. Lesli just turned thirty. “Since I’ve gotten it, I’ve been told so many things that I can’t do.” She’s been told to stay away from heat, sun, hot showers, ovens, and blow dryers. She takes shots every day to reduce the likelihood of attacks. She still doesn’t fully have her hands back, either. “I’ll probably never get them back completely.” Peg has had to learn a lot of Lesli’s guitar lines for days when Lesli can’t play.
With all that, the band still did an East Coast trip earlier this year. They toured the Southwest and played New York City. Saeta’s new album, “We Are Waiting All For Hope,” was recently released. Lesli continued with law school while playing gigs and benefits with both bands. Then, Ms. Led went into the studio: the new album, “These Things We Say,” is political, catchy, and pro-feminist. It is due out on Election Day, November 2, for a reason. “We are trying to get something across to people,” Lesli says. “Change can happen when people are really aggressive about making change, and standing up for their rights and standing up for other people’s rights. Get riled up. That is why we are doing this.”