ART SPOTLIGHT

Full-time duo, Musicians Neal and Leandra make marriage work

a few years ago, singer-songwriters Neal Hagberg and Leandra Peak found themselves growing weary of being called a "husband-and-wife duo." But when a friend recommended that they explore that label rather than run from it, they took the challenge. On April 8, the couple will release the results of that exploration with the unveiling of their new CD, "bridge rail," a look at "committed relationships." The CD will be released in a concert at the Guthrie Theater.

The program notes on the new CD sum it up, Hagberg and Peak said. "The course of a committed relationship is unpredictable. When you jump into it, you don't know if you're jumping into bliss or oblivion. It's usually both. So if you've got to jump, you might as well go down singing."

And singing they are, with tour engagements across the country, several CDs on the Red House Records label, and this newest CD, which they are releasing on their own label. The Linden Hills couple has been performing their blues- and gospel-influenced folk as "Neal & Leandra" for over 12 years, racking up rave reviews for both singing and songwriting. Hagberg wrote most of the lyrics on "bridge rail," with Peak co-writing a few and their friend Suzzy Roche of The Roches weighing in with one tune.

"We took a different approach this time and pulled together a band in advance," said Hagberg. Featured on the CD are percussionist Marc Anderson, Dirk Freymouth on electric guitar, Semisonic band member John Munson on bass and Jeff Victor on keyboards. "Their backgrounds are so different from ours," said Hagberg. "They come from rock and pop. Dirk is a master of lute and Marc specializes in world music. They all brought something different to the table, and they took such an ownership of the project. When you're rehearsing outside the studio, there's this opportunity to experiment. Somebody was always saying, 'what about this? What about that?' Each song had a chance to turn itself around in this kind of process." The band will play at the Guthrie concert as well.

"Neal wanted to call this CD 'Marriage' but I wanted to call it 'Our Neighbors' Marriage!'" said Peak. "But then we went to Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd's Over Coffee series to talk about our creative journey, and our neighbors were there. They were nervous about that title, so we changed it to 'bridge rail,' which is the title of one of the songs that we really, really

like." Hagberg wrote the song, which he describes as dark. "It's about a married guy who is standing on a bridge rail pondering the demise of his marriage. It's our favorite song, and it has yodeling in it. And we don't even yodel. Somehow it just came to me, and the juxtaposition of the dark lyrics with yodeling was really cool. We would do this in concert and people would just love it. And I would say to them, 'Did you really listen to those lyrics?'"

Talking with the duo is a bit like eavesdropping on their marriage. Their frank assessment of working together often bubbles over with laughter. "Definitely the hardest part is being married to your business partner," said Hagberg. "I mean, it's difficult for me, but it's absolute hell

for Leandra!" They have been together for nearly 20 years, married for the last 12. "We didn't rush into it," said Peak, with her robust laugh. "That was wise, wasn't it? I mean, at the end of the day, who do you complain to about the person you're working with?"

Hagberg and Peak both say they ended up in music mostly by accident. Hagberg was planning on medical school, Peak on a career in international business. But from the beginning 12 years ago they found ample audiences across the country. They spent the first few years on the road, touring constantly and making records with Red House. Two years ago, when their daughter Madeline was born, they found themselves at somewhat of a crossroads, wanting to continue in music but not wanting to travel so much.

"When we had Madeline and decided to cut back on touring, we thought we might be getting the want ads out, but surprisingly enough, all it did was clarify things for us," said Peak. "Touring is a great source of revenue but also expenses. Sometimes we'd be out for a month, and depending on the gigs, might just break even." Hagberg added, "We basically decided we would only play for decent pay or for people we love. It gave us tremendous energy. We cut our touring in half but kept our income intact."

The couple does their own booking and only recently hired an employee to help fill CD orders. "We tried to fulfill orders ourselves for our first Christmas CD," said Peak. "We were up until midnight filling orders week after week. We would just put on the headphones and strap our baby to our chests and answer phones non-stop. It was hysterical, but we knew we needed help."

While Hagberg and Peak rave about working with Red House Records, they clearly are reveling in the freedom of making their own recording. "We could do whatever we want. And we did, from yodeling to working with Suzzy to having Leandra sing 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,'" said Hagberg. "She just kills that song on this recording!"

After the release of the CD, they plan to relax at their Linden Hills home for the month of May. Hagberg said, "Most sane people go on the road to promote a new recording. What do we do? We go off the road. But that's the great thing about self-producing. When you're your own record company, you can cut your own promotional deal. The glory of the music we do is that it's grassroots, so it's not like timing is critical. We know we'll sell this steadily over the next few years." Hagberg turned to his wife and asked if she agreed with that assessment, to which she laughed, "I wasn't paying attention, honey; you were talking."