Home Entertainment “I was hooked on performance.” A Q&A with Leslie Damaso, Filipina American...

“I was hooked on performance.” A Q&A with Leslie Damaso, Filipina American opera singer, bookseller, and community builder

Photo by Clayton Hauck, courtesy Leslia Damaso.

Almost two decades ago, Leslie Damaso accidentally stumbled upon Mineral Point, Wisconsin, on a roadtrip with her partner, Keith, to see the Dickeyville Grotto in the dead of winter. On the ride back home to Cross Plains, they took the Mineral Point exit to see what the small historical town had to offer. And thank goodness they did: Over the past 18 years, Damaso has called Mineral Point home and has steadily fostered a sense of community there. She teaches piano and voice lessons at her studio, Buttonhill Music Studio, and recently opened the bookstore Republic of Letters, which has quickly become a neighborhood spot. 

Damaso was born in Isabela, Philippines, and was 11 years old when her family moved to Effingham, Ill. They’d later move to Champaign-Urbana, where she’d later get her degree in vocal performance at the university. Trained as a classic opera singer, Damaso performs in many languages, including her native language of Tagalog and her native dialect of Ilocano. 

Her newest work, SIRENA, is a multimedia performance that features various kundiman songs (Filipino love songs). With a poem written by Damaso herself, original arrangements by bassist Ben Ferris, pianist Jason Kutz, and drummer Mike Koszewski (who together make up the Madison-based band Mr. Chair) and intermezzos that feature the Indigenous Filipino kulintang (gongs), SIRENA uniquely uplifts Filipino culture and weaves together stories of one family to that of a nation, finding connection and healing amidst the sorrows of intergenerational hurt.

Damaso sat down for a Q&A ahead of the release of her album SIRENA, which comes out on Sunday, June 30.

Rodlyn-mae Banting: How did you come to music?

Leslie Damaso: I had this best friend named Sarah Vallejo in Isabela, where I’m from. She came from a musical family—they were in bands and she was this incredible singer. So she made me perform at a school program right before I moved to the States. We sang together, and I was such a shy person, but to get that kind of connection with the audience was incredible to me. I also studied piano growing up but I quit for a while [when I moved to the States]. 

I got into the junior and senior choir as a freshman. I was like, “Oh, they like my voice, but I don’t know, I’m so shy.” But I was also hooked on performance. So I found a teacher and told her I wanted to make it to state for [a solo contest]. That was just my goal. She was like, “Oh, what are you gonna do with the rest of your life?” I was like, “Not music. Anything but music.” But I knew I loved it. She told me I should study with someone at the university and so I had my teacher there who was a grad student. [When I was applying to college], I didn’t know how difficult it was to get into the University of Illinois [at Urbana-Champaign], that it was a top school. I was like, “This is the only place I’m auditioning to.” I got in and I studied vocal performance, and got burned out and quit singing for two years after that.

RMB: How did you rekindle that initial love for singing? 

LD: When I started singing again, I was with this ensemble [in Madison], and [the violinist and violist] Shannon Farley was actually my first connection. We ended up playing at the First Unitarian Society. And then I met Jason Kutz, who’s the pianist I work with now. I told him that I needed to hire someone that I can meet with every week, and so we did that. Eventually, that led to a concert at the Mineral Point Opera House. I wanted to just challenge myself and get back out there again. So we did a couple of kundiman pieces. They were songs from all different languages, and we called it “The Tears of Things.” 

People after the show were like, “We’d love to hear more of this.” [So I told myself that] I should learn more. I had this book of kundiman songs from a Filipino grad student at [Urbana-Champaign]. [At first] I didn’t really want to look at it because I was like, “Oh, I’m in this zone of art songs, French, Italian, German-language songs.” And I wanted to be in that zone. But singing and this whole project have been a way of going back into Philippine culture. I’ve talked to so many Filipino American artists all over the United States and it’s been amazing. I’ve been doing this for a while and more and more things are happening. I can’t not nurture this.

RMB: When did you decide you wanted to lean into kundiman songs and other Filipino music?

LD: It was around the same time that I finally wanted to deal with my past. I’ve been in a period of 10 years now where I’m like, “I’m gonna consume works by Filipino authors. I’m going to talk to musicians, artists, and see what their experiences are.” And I think what I found that was comforting is that my story is not unique. I don’t know my family history, so that’s another part of it. 

In the SIRENA album, there’s a poem about a child realizing, for the first time, how human beings can hurt each other. The work explores how we might still be able to live well, despite that fact. It’s a collage of music from the past and present, of histories, of east and west, north and south of the Philippines, of great love, of people and of stories well beyond the confines of the album. I wanted to understand my humanity, to heal, to see others more deeply and to celebrate that connection.

Photo by Anya Kubilus, courtesy Leslie Damaso.

RMB: You were a student of music, and now you also teach piano and voice lessons. Is there something that you feel is distinct about learning and teaching music as opposed to other disciplines?

LD: I just love interacting one-on-one with my students. I pay so much attention to them. Some kids are like, “Don’t you need to look at your phone or something?” And I say, “No I don’t. I’m all yours. This is your space. We’re together here.” I think something special about the arts and music is that time to have a blank canvas. And then you bring in yourself, and then we have this new stuff that we can learn together. And then it can lead to you creating beyond music, even. I really like to emphasize that yes, we learn the songs, we improvise, but we also talk about, “Hey, where’s this from? Who’s the composer? What was happening at that time?” I want to teach that to my young students that, yes, there’s this piece, but you can go in so many directions.

RMB: In 2023, you and your partner opened Republic of Letters Books in Mineral Point. What was the inspiration behind that business venture? 

LD: We went through the pandemic, and it was just awful. I was seeing people just so disconnected from each other. We wanted to create a third space where you can just naturally meet people. The way we created the space, there’s really nowhere to hide—once you get in there, it’s spacious and you can’t not talk to people. Keith is a voracious reader and he mostly does the regular supply purchases of certain books. But coming from all of my experiences, I’m like, “Oh, I ran into this person. Let’s order this thing, or I saw this article, or a person I met at a party said their aunt is making this cookbook.” I don’t work behind the counter. I’m more with the people. 

The lady that owned that building was our friend who died last summer. And that was her space, her shop, for 35 years. But she lived in that building for 65 years. So all these people that came with that, the history of that, we wanted to create that space to keep doing what she started many, many years ago. 

RMB: What would you say is the most surprising thing about opening up the bookstore?

LD: How much people love it. One time Keith didn’t want to open the bookstore. He wanted to just relax. We live across the street above the music building and we looked across the street and there were six people waiting at the door. I feel like bookstores are always a great thing for our community.

RMB: Do you see this bookselling endeavor as an extension of your career in music in any way? 

LD: To get to know people in Mineral Point 18 years ago, I started a food blog called Driftless Appetite because I admired food blogs’ beautiful photos and I love the writing. Fast forward to the pandemic, I was looking for anything and everything to do. So I got connected with [Filipina American poet] Barbara Jane Reyes. She was doing these online courses and I took one in poetry and one in Filipino women authors, past and present. And that must have influenced my idea to write the mermaid story [for SIRENA]. [When the band and I started playing kundiman songs], there was really no other way of presenting it besides like, “Oh, here are the songs.” The story of Sirena ties it all together. 

RMB: What has it been like to live as a woman of color in a small white town like Mineral Point?

LD: I’ve lived here for the past 18 years now. I am aware that I might stand out because of the color of my skin and because I wasn’t born here, but I don’t think too much about it. I also just stand out because I’m a super extrovert. I go on with my days simply with the intention to interact as authentically as possible and to treat others how I would like to be treated. It doesn’t mean that I haven’t struggled a few times not feeling welcomed in certain spaces, but that’s just such a small thing compared to the freedom I have to make my life how I want it to be.

RMB: What do you hope that listeners get out of SIRENA?

LD: I hope that listeners simply enjoy hearing something new for the first time and want to tell someone else about it!