Leah Finkelstein ’97 has been playing the piano since age 3. Her decades of dedication paid off in a big way last fall. On Sept. 24, 2011, she was named best singer/songwriter at the 2011 Malibu Music Awards, which honor the achievements of successful entertainers, songwriters, publishers and others who contribute positively to the music industry and community at large. Her song “Taking It Slow” from her second full-length LP, “Feigning Composure,” (on the Def Cat Productions label that she launched with her manager) won her the honor. Ironically, Finkelstein, who graduated from Wheaton with a degree in music performance, initially was afraid to sing in front of people. “I had always been an instrumentalist, but singing was always very anxiety-provoking. I performed at open-mic nights, but my mic would always need to be cranked for anyone to hear me. Someone convinced me to try out for the Wheaton Whims, which I didn’t want to do. I am thankful I did. Though I was still too nervous to sing out, I used the opportunity to train my voice and little by little, I gained the confidence I needed to start singing a little louder. Now, I sing too loud, and sometimes I have to pull back from the mic. The friendships I made and getting out of my comfort zone musically were so important and continue to be.” Her talent appears to be coming through loud and clear in a singing style that has been described as “American roots soul” because all of her influences are based in jazz, blues, folk, rock and a little bit of country.
The singer’s first album, “Dear Claudia,” named in her mother’s honor, gained her major recognition, which resulted in Finkelstein and her husband relocating to the West Coast in 2007. Her mother, Claudia Finkelstein, a jazz vocalist who died of cancer in 2005, continues to inspire the singer. “I was extremely close with my mother. Of course, we had music in common, but beyond that, we just really loved each other’s souls. …I dedicated the album and the band to her.”