Vivian Leva's voice is the sound of living tradition. Raised by parents who absorbed ancient tunes and ballads during visits to legendary old-time musicians, Leva grew up steeped in the Appalachian and country music of her Lexington, VA home. On Time Is Everything (released March 2018), her label debut, Leva earns a spot in the lineage of great neo-traditional songwriters like Gillian Welch and Sarah Jarosz. And much like these singers, Leva finds inspiration in the past without being stifled by it.
Though still in college, Leva’s musical roots run deep. She grew up going to fiddle festivals with her parents, both acclaimed roots musicians themselves who perform as the duo Jones and Leva. Her father, James, is a respected multi-instrumentalist who learned knee-to-knee from old-time legends like Tommy Jarrell and Doug Wallin, while her mother, Carol Elizabeth, picked up bygone songs from a now lost generation of singers and recorded with the pioneering bluegrass duo Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Leva soaked up this influence at a young age, and, at age 9, began penning songs and performing with her father at venues like the prestigious Carter Family Fold.
Traditional American music was an early influence on her songwriting. Her time at music festivals (she’s never missed a Clifftop) regularly landed her in jams with roots music heavyweights like Dirk Powell, Caleb Klauder, and Pharis & Jason Romero. “The biggest part of traditional music has always been the community,” she says. “It’s really special that you can travel almost anywhere and share tunes with a group of people that you’ve never met.” In this spirit, she joined The Onlies, a young stringband that won the coveted traditional band competition at the 2017 Clifftop festival in West Virginia. Add to this performance resumé teaching stints at The Swannanoa Gathering, The Big Sur Fiddle Camp, and Centrum’s “Voice Works” and her roots music bonafides are obvious, but it’s Leva's songwriting that’ll bowl you over.
The sonic and lyrical palette of Time Is Everything, which was recorded at Joseph DeJarnette’s Studio 808A in Floyd, VA, is influenced in equal parts by classic storytellers like Kitty Wells and Texas Gladden, the harmony singing of the Stanley and Everly Brothers, and the pop sensibilities of Mandolin Orange. Leva’s writing effortlessly shifts between archaic ballads, classic country and honky tonk, and the best of contemporary Americana. For her first solo record, she enlisted the talents of multi-instrumentalist Riley Calcagno (The Onlies) as well as other top notch collaborators (Jack Devereux, Eric Robertson, Nick Falk, and Joseph "Joebass" DeJarnette) to add fiddle, banjo, pedal steel, and percussion to the album’s tastefully minimal production, imbuing each story of love and heartbreak with a hearty emotional punch.
The album’s title didn’t come easily until she noticed a lyrical through-line: the passing of time. “The phrase 'Time Is Everything' encompasses the main theme of all of the songs,” she says. “It’s really about how everything in a situation can seem right but it all comes down to timing. That’s especially true in a relationship.” The tasteful Americana rendition of the title track, a co-write with musical partner Riley Calcagno, exemplifies this ephemeral longing. However, stories of wandering eyes or missed connections also show up in the straight-ahead honky tonk of “Why Don’t You Introduce Me As Your Darling,” the country shuffle of “Bottom of the Glass” (a song she wrote at age 14), and the old-time stringband-influenced “No Forever.” The album features eight originals plus a cover of Paul Burch’s plaintive waltz “Last Of My Kind,” and a re-composed version of Virginia ballad singer Texas Gladden’s “Cold Mountains” with a new chorus written by Leva and Calcagno.
For Leva, the kernel of a song often appears spontaneously—a story from a close friend, a closing scene of a TV show, a new guitar tuning. “If I specifically sit down to write something, I usually don’t like it. But I play around with different starting places.” Once the scene is set, however, the song is often complete in less than an hour. “It’s always hard to express real feelings without being overly sentimental, to balance a specific story and the universal.” Rest assured, this album strikes the balance perfectly.
It’s rare to find such a mature and confident voice in a young artist—someone whose music springs so organically from a grassroots connection to the traditional music community in which she was raised. Time Is Everything is indeed a bold statement from this rising star of deeply rooted American music. Vivian Leva is a voice that deserves to be listened to in the coming years.