Leanne Pearson was fed up with 2020.
The Winnipeg country-rocker has seen the COVID-19 pandemic pull her life and career over to the side of the road.
Like so many other people in 2020, Pearson had become separated from loved ones. For months, she was in Winnipeg, staying with her folks and writing songs, while her fiancé, Jordan Riley, was at their home in Nashville, a closed border separating the two.
So she made a daring decision. She boarded a flight to Music City, one she’s taken many times, and shifted her relationship, and her music, back into high gear.
"I did make the leap and take the risk of travelling from Manitoba to Nashville to see Jordan in September. It was scary, so knowing the anxiety that I felt while travelling and the risk I took, I’m going to stay put here for a while until things calm down," says Pearson, who won two Manitoba Country Music Awards in 2019, including album of the year for the LP Pull It Off, and in 2018 was named the MCMA’s female artist of the year.
The result: a new single, Miles Away; a new musical style that focuses on feelings rather than F-150s; and an innovative new video that came out just before Christmas that puts an American Sign Language translator and the song’s lyrics at centre stage.
"While I was in Winnipeg in quarantine I was writing music a lot and I was kind of emotional about the situation of being away from my fiancé, not knowing when we’d get married, not knowing when I’d see him again," Pearson says.
"I wrote it and sent a video of me playing it to him and said, ‘Hey, I wrote this song for you.’ I decided to post it on social media and the response was overwhelming."
So she contacted Murray Pulver — the former Doc Walker and Crash Test Dummies member who has become one of Winnipeg’s most sought-after music producers — to turn the video into a single.
"For me to release Miles Away... something so vulnerable, is really just me wanting to share my life and where I’m at, something so personal that has impacted other people," Pearson says. "I just wanted to get on with life and to release something I feel a connection to."
She recorded a music video shortly after — it will be released soon, she says — but she latched onto a different idea after learning about Sign a Song, a Nashville company that makes music accessible for those who are unable to hear.
"Growing up, my nanas were my best friends, and one was blind and one was deaf," Pearson says. "So one never got the chance to hear my singing voice but she could see me performing and laughing onstage and having fun. The other couldn’t see me onstage but she could hear my voice."
The video begins with Pearson sitting on a stool and strumming a white acoustic guitar, but quickly shifts to Sign a Song’s Kiley Scott signing the lyrics to Miles Away while Pearson plays in the background.
The presentation is an apt one for 2020, a year where ASL translators were often seen accompanying government health officials and politicians to provide updates about the COVID-19 pandemic.
"That was my vision. I wanted her to be front and centre because the reason to make the video was to make the song accessible," Pearson says.
On the relationship front, Pearson and Riley, much to the delight of their families and her 11,000-plus followers on Twitter and Instagram, eloped and livestreamed the Nashville nuptials back to Winnipeg with the King — Elvis Presley lives forever in Tennessee — presiding over the ceremony.
"We were going to have all these wedding celebrations in Manitoba and have the wedding here in Nashville," Pearson says. "The dates kept getting pushed and pushed and pushed. We’d been separated for about four months due to COVID travel bans.
"When we were finally reunited, we just said, ‘Let’s just elope.’ We just couldn’t wait to get married. We already had the wedding bands.
"We were initially going to the courthouse but we decided to surprise them with an Elvis Chapel and our cat Winnie as the cat-in-honour. It was taking a really dark situation and turning into something happy and positive that family and friends and fans and everybody could cry happy tears and laugh about down the road, instead of waiting out COVID or going to the courthouse."
The happy couple celebrated the event by dancing while the Elvis impersonator sang Burning Love.
The spontaneous marriage fits right in with Pearson’s energetic onstage presence and the antics she sometimes displays on social media. She’s says engaging with fans on Instagram and Twitter is an essential part of being an entertainer.
"It’s something I did struggle with very early on, because I’m a very private and reserved person, despite what you see on social media," she says. "I realized that people who follow you on social media are essentially friends. They’re invested in you and your life and your career just as much as you are. If you’re not willing to share with your followers things about your life, you’re never going to connect with them."
A big connection with fans came when she and Jordan appeared in a 2018 episode of HGTV’s reality show The Property Brothers, in which the identical twin hosts and contractors, Jonathan and Drew Scott, renovate homes across the United States for people featured on the show.
Among the home’s new features was a music room for Pearson, which has gained added value now that she uses it for livestreamed performances.
"I have a beautiful music room that the Property Brothers made," she says. "Jonathan and Drew have the same kind of humour as I do, so I got along really well with them.
"It’s my first time in my whole life having a music room and having guitars hanging on a wall and records on a wall. It’s the first time I’ve had my own space for my music and it’s a wonderful feeling."
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.