With new lineup, larger sound, Leslie Sisson's Moving Panoramas look forward
As the clock wound down on 2017, Moving Panoramas singer Leslie Sisson ditched her dark locks to go icy blonde. Eastside rock haven Hotel Vegas was celebrating New Year’s Eve 1976, and she was booked to play Blondie. She’d done these tributes before, once portraying Olivia Newton-John, and she didn’t feel like wearing a wig.
Bleaching her hair was also an act of deliverance. “When I look in the mirror, I’m blonde now,” she says, “and I did that for fun ... then I just kept it, because I needed a fresh start.”
More than seven years have passed since the terrible morning that twisted her life into a terrifying true crime tale, and the residual trauma has been hard to shake. Sisson and her boyfriend at the time were drugged and kidnapped at gunpoint in her Central Austin home in December 2011. In the criminal justice system, violent crimes can take years to resolve. Her alleged assailant also was on trial for a double murder in Galveston that occurred before her home was broken into. Seeking the death penalty, the prosecutor wanted to pursue the more serious charges first. That trial began moving forward in earnest in 2016, dredging up the post-traumatic stress disorder she had spent years in therapy working to overcome.
The case was scheduled to be tried in April 2018, but in March, while Sisson was at Hotel Vegas waiting to play a South by Southwest 2018 day party, the prosecutor called to let her know the suspect pleaded guilty to both murder charges in exchange for two life sentences with no option of parole. Her trial was no longer necessary. It was a huge relief.
“The last thing I wanted was to go to trial,” she says. She was ready to close the chapter and move on. “And, definitely, that’s why I was interested in making my hair blonde. I just wanted to feel like a different person.”
It’s late January, roughly a month before the new Moving Panoramas album, “In Two,” is set to drop. It’s the band’s first release since 2015, and in the interim the group morphed from an all-girl trio to a six-piece, multi-gendered indie pop outfit. The larger cast creates a fuller sound, adding rich sonic textures to the band’s signature dreamy pop. Sisson’s on a lunch break at the trailer she keeps near the film production office where she logs 50- to 60-hour workweeks. A trio of Chihuahuas circus dance around her feet. She’s decidedly dressed down.
With a demanding job, a band to manage and a passion project rescuing special-needs dogs, fashion is not a high priority.
“My style is kind of the anti-style lately,” she says. “If I have time to jump in the shower, I do. I don’t even look in the mirror. I go to work sometimes and somebody will be like, ‘Hair looks great.’ and I’ll be like, ‘Thanks,’ and then I go to the bathroom and it’s like (feigns shock).” She laughs.
Her everyday look is no-nonsense: band T-shirt, jeans, Converse kicks, hoodie, glasses.
“My favorite shirt is my Runaways shirt, and I wear it every other day,” she says.
For gigs, her go-to strategy is to dress in black. “When I do have the time and I'm able to dig things out of the piles of clothing rubble in my closet ... I end up reaching into my goth, grunge and/or country roots,” she says. “But then it just turns out looking like a confused goth tomboy, grunge country girl with disheveled hair and makeup, like ‘Even Cowgirls Get the Blues’-meets-Robert Smith.”
She’s not losing any sleep over her image. “It’s ... not about the fashion as much as it is the tunes,” she says.
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Style was never something that came easily to Sisson.
“My mother dressed me up as a kid, but (then) my parents got divorced and I was kind of on my own and I was always this confused skater kid who looked like a boy,” she says.
A band nerd with braces, she skateboarded to the elementary school near her suburban Dallas home wearing pink Converse high-tops that matched her pink skateboard and pink backpack. She rocked a mullet she cut herself. Twins in the grade above her lived on one of the streets she passed. They thought she was a boy and terrorized her with homophobic slurs.
“They would kick my ass,” she says. Her older brother finally stepped in to even out the ass-kicking.
Sisson’s love of skating endured, and when she moved to Austin for a grad school fellowship studying film at the University of Texas, she became involved with the Texas Rollergirls, the flat-track league who sparked a resurgence of interest in roller derby across the country in the early aughts. She skated with the Rhinestone Cowgirls and later the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, and her derby name was Rolletta Lynn.
(In a first-person account of her kidnapping that Sisson shared with the Austin Chronicle in 2015, she credited her roller derby experience with helping her strategize an escape from the car where she was held captive. “As a jammer, my job was to 'find the hole' and 'visualize an out,'" she wrote. The kidnapper decided to abandon her boyfriend at a gas station and demanded Sisson drive his car. While she climbed from the passenger seat, she lunged for the driver’s side door and sprinted to freedom.)
At first, Sisson was reluctant to embrace her cowgirl persona. Growing up, she endured verbal and physical abuse from her mother’s “alcoholic cowboy boyfriend,” and it led her to reject all things country.
“I ran from it. I joined theater and speech. I wanted to get rid of my country accent. I moved to New York City. I wanted to do Broadway. I wanted to get as far away from Texas as I could,” she says. But being back in Texas on the country team in the roller derby shifted her perception.
“I was like, '(Expletive) it, I’m going to embrace it.' And then I realized there’s so many more good memories from my country roots — my grandparents and their trailer, and my dad, playing in country bars every weekend — that’s the reason I play music.”
To build her derby character, she started collecting western shirts on eBay. Her favorites were the Kenny Rogers brand, but she was “too tomboyish” for the puffed shoulders, so she cut the sleeves off, giving the shirts a punkier feel. They became an enduring part of her look. These days, she’s even open to the extra ruffles. “The country shirt with a belt thing is my jam, and I have an arsenal of these shirts,” she says.
Cinching her shirts with a belt is a look she picked up from her mother, who died a few months before her abduction in 2011.
“She always did that, and I was always like, ‘Man, it sure makes your hips pop out.’ I was always kind of trying to cover it up. I didn’t want to have hips and stuff. Now I do it all the time. I’ll even take (a) sleeveless T-shirt and put a belt on it, and done,” she says.
“Sometimes I feel like Joan Jett-meets-Loretta Lynn,” she says with a laugh.
Sisson played in bands in college and throughout part of her adult life in New York City, but Moving Panoramas was something of a happy accident.
“I was done. I was going to continue to work in TV. I was going to retire (from music) because I felt like I’d done enough as a side man in lots of bands,” she says.
The kidnapping waylaid plans for a solo album release, but in the aftermath she went through an explosion of creativity that birthed the songs on the first Moving Panoramas release, “One.”
“This band was an outlet,” she says. “These songs are an outlet for just things that I’m going through in my life.”
She thinks of the new album, “In Two,” as a sequel to “One.” Some of the songs were holdovers that didn’t make it onto the first record, and the rest were written and recorded when the trial of her alleged assailant was still in progress.
“‘In Two’ is the title. So it’s like ‘One’ was about being alone and ‘In Two’ is about literally just dividing that in two and me feeling like I’m spread in two.”
Over the past few years, Sisson began experiencing health issues that made her feel like she was breaking in two. She was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that was causing her hair to fall out. “My hair split in two, parted like the Red Sea,” she says. “It would have gotten worse if I hadn’t figured it out. I would have gone completely bald.”
She also started having problems with her hands that inhibited her ability to play guitar. “I ended up having to bring in a pinch a guitar player for our single release show because my hand swelled up out of nowhere. ... I went to the ER. … I couldn’t play guitar.”
The backup guitar player Sisson tapped was Rosie Castoe, the original bass player in the band who had left to go to school. She decided to keep her in the mix. Vocalist Cara Tillman, who used to sing in Sweet Spirit, is also on the Panoramas roster. “(Sweet Spirit) downsized, and I snatched her up,” Sisson says.
The backing crew includes two members of Sisson’s country music side project, the Rated Exes, Jody Suarez and Phil McJunkins, plus Jordan Rivell.
Sisson is thrilled to be part of a trio of women in the front line. “I don’t need to be the star. I like bringing people around me and letting them do things too,” she says.
She also cites the other women in her band as style inspirations.
“Cara is always is on point. She’s got the best style. And Rosie is just, like, 22, and anything she does is golden,” she says.
The three frequently try to coordinate their looks. “Cara will be like, ‘Do you guys mind If I wear something flowy tonight?’ and we’ll be like, ‘Yeah, we could try to be flowy too.'”
Overall, Sisson is feeling good about the new lineup.
“It’s definitely way bigger than I expected soundwise, and that’s exciting,” she says. Putting down her guitar onstage has been surprisingly liberating. “Being able to just step away ... let go … has just taken so much pressure off of me,” she says. After years being the band leader who writes the songs, books the shows, organizes everything and plays lead guitar, it’s a relief to lean on her crew.
"It’s nice to just sit back and let the band do its thing. ... It allows us to have more fun, because there’s less pressure onstage,” she says.
“And the girls are great. So far, it’s the coolest band I’ve ever been in.”
In this series that combines music and fashion, Deborah Sengupta Stith talks to Austin musicians about how image plays into their art.
Moving Panoramas Live
Feb. 22: "In Two" release party at Barracuda. $8-$10 ($23 with vinyl LP). 9 p.m. doors. 611 E. Seventh St. barracudaaustin.com
March 3: In-store at Waterloo Records. Free. 2 p.m. 600A N. Lamar Blvd. waterloorecords.com
March 7: Leslie Sisson solo at Volstead (and Hotel Vegas) anniversary party. Free. 4 p.m. doors. 1500 E. Sixth St. texashotelvegas.com
Moving Panoramas are an official South by Southwest 2019 artist and will perform during the festival.