Over the course of six years and three albums, singer/songwriter/guitarist Leeni Ramadan has crafted a distinctive musical universe with her band Prom Queen. It’s an environment where Brill Building girl-group pop, surf rock, exotica music, and Patsy Cline country share space—a place where jet-black humor, kitsch, and haunted obsession intermingle like spirals of cigarette smoke.
Doom-Wop, Prom Queen’s newest album, stands tall as the band’s finest. Ramadan continues to cross-pollinate retro elements with grace and hooks to spare, but the record really soars thanks to a full-on studio (self-) production and the palpable chemistry between her and her musical co-conspirators. Doom-Wop also boasts Ramadan’s strongest set of songs to date, no mean feat for one of the Northwest’s most consistent and inspired songwriters.
Over brunch in the appropriately warm and retro environs of Ballard’s Smoke Shop diner, Leeni Ramadan chatted about her band’s new record, the current state of the world creeping into her songwriting, and bringing the band’s retro universe across the pond.
Doom-Wop sounds more immediate and punchy than your last two full-length records. What was different this time out?
The last couple of albums are basically bedroom records that were enhanced by overdubs. Night Sound only had live drums on one track: Everything else was just me. I made the whole [Midnight Veil] record on my computer, and then we overdubbed drums, guitar, and the other live instruments. Both of those records were things that I made and then brought to the band.
This record, production-wise, is really about the band I’ve been playing with for the last few years. It was my first time recording with the band in a studio. Even though we still weren’t actually writing the songs together, It was really cool to—from day one—lay out the rhythm tracks together and feel out and change up all of the instrumental parts, [and] to just find cool things collaborating as a band.
The songwriting’s still really consistent on Doom-Wop, though.
Thanks! Some of it was also written at the same time as the songs that ended up on Night Sound and Midnight Veil: I had a year where I just wrote a ton of stuff. Some of it’s from that era of my life, and some it’s new, but it all still feels like Prom Queen to me.
What determined the placement of “End of the World” as the album’s lead single?
“End of the World” is probably the song I feel most strongly about, because it feels so pertinent to our times right now. Every day, something happens in the news, and I just feel like I relate to that song every single day. The chorus has become a mantra for me.
Your singing’s always been strong, but Doom-Wop really showcases the strength and character of your voice.
I have a voice like a chameleon [laughs], because I’ve had a lot of practice doing singing telegrams, where I sound like Cher or Celene Dion. And it’s fun to go to karaoke and do something like a Beyonce song—something that’s just really fun to belt out. I realized that I didn’t have any of songs of my own that are like that. I really wanted to enjoy the experience of singing my songs, in the same way I’d enjoy singing a karaoke song.
Also, this was the first time I recorded vocals in a studio. With the other records, it was me in my bedroom, so they have this softer vibe. Here, I got a vocal booth and could go for it a little more. That made a huge difference to me.
One of my favorite tracks on Doom-Wop is “I Need You,” which has a really cool Muscle Shoals soul vibe. The hook sounds like someone blowing through a piece of grass between their thumbs and making this bad-ass melody out of it.
That’s saxophone and distorted guitar. I wrote it with this mellotron emulator that had this thick brass sound, but I wanted us to be able to recreate it without samples, as best as we could in a live setting.
One of Prom Queen’s trademarks is the band’s distinctive take covering familiar songs. The version of Guns ’n Roses’ “November Rain” that closes Doom-Wop makes a great bookend for the record. What made you commit a version to this record?
I knew I wanted one of our really familiar covers to go on the record, and to go through the whole process of licensing and everything. I wanted it to be one that was super-recognizable to people. I have so many recordings, probably four or five of them, of me just trying to figure out how to get it right, over and over again. I am so happy with how this final version came out. The band just got it so right.
You’ve managed to create this impressive mini-universe with Prom Queen, and you’ve put a lot of your own time and money into it. How close have you gotten to being able able to maintain a living at it?
It keeps changing. With every release I’ve done, it’s been an entirely different climate. We haven’t done much touring, which is where you can get a little ahead sometimes, but even that’s a big cost up front. I don’t know how other bands do it continuously. I have booked a small tour in the UK for October, which is exciting. It’ll be our first time overseas, and I have a suspicion that we’ll do well over there if we can get the word out.
Doom-Wop dropped this week, and Prom Queen celebrates its release with a record release show at The Piranha Shop, Saturday September 23. Tickets are available here.