Music Portrait | posted 07.09.2021
Leslie Winer
The Unknown World Star
Björk, Grace Jones, Boy George and Sinéad O’Connor are among her admirers. William S. Burroughs was her mentor. Somehow, she also invented trip-hop. Yet Leslie Winer is known only to insiders today. That could change now.
Text Harry Schmidt , Photos © Francois Dymont / Light In the Attic
Leslie+winer

At first glance, her biography is somewhat reminiscent of the plot of »Forrest Gump« or LCD Soundsystem’s »Losing My Edge«: Leslie Winer was there, when history was being made. Or at least close to it. With her debut album »Witch« in 1990, Winer recorded one of the earliest testimonies of the then new genre that was to become the signature sound of the nineties as trip hop shortly thereafter – one year before Massive Attack’s »Blue Lines« was released, the album that is still considered by many today to be the birth of this fusion of hip hop with Jamaican dancehall, which was able to integrate a psychedelically colourful bouquet of funk, soul, house and R&B elements under electronic auspices.

A decade earlier, according to Jean-Paul Gaultier, Winer was »the first androgynous model«, standing in front of the camera of photographers such as Helmut Newton, Irving Penn and Pierre & Gilles. Leslie Winer appeared in campaigns by Valentino, Christian Dior and Yohji Yamamoto, and graced the covers of international fashion magazines such as The Face and Vogue. The fact that she earned a reputation for being »difficult to work with« – in Tokyo at the time, she was reportedly banned from entering every club without exception – seems to have done little or no harm to her career. In 2014, she continued her modeling career, walking the runway for a new Vivienne Westwood collection. However, Winer firmly rejects the attribution of being a »former supermodel«: „What the fuck is that? That concept didn’t even exist then. I’m also a former nasty alcoholic and former Tampax user, each for more than five years – and with considerably more enthusiasm«, she enthused in one of her rare interviews.

The Coolest Woman of the Planet

Winer was also there, when Jean-Michel Basquiat took his first steps in the Soho art scene in New York in the early 1980s; at times they shared table and bed. She also shared an intense friendship with William S. Burroughs – an honour bestowed on very few women. The legendary beat poet was also the one who encouraged Winer to make her first attempts at writing after she dropped out to study with conceptual art star Joseph Kosuth and feminist body artist Hannah Wilke, and thus became her most influential mentor. The musicians she would later collaborate with include acts as diverse as Björk, Bill Laswell, Tim Simenon aka Bomb the Bass, Holger Hiller, Jon Hassell, Vincent Gallo, Carl Michael von Hausswolff, Mekon, Diamond Version, and – more recently – Christopher Chaplin, Jay Glass Dubs and Maxwell Sterling; Winer’s songs have been interpreted by the likes of Grace Jones, Boy George (»She might just be the coolest woman on the planet!«) and Sinéad O’Connor. But despite the closeness and connection with legendary artists, her name is only familiar to a small minority: In the list of unknown world stars, Leslie Winer definitely belongs to the top ten.

Recorded in London in late 1989 with musicians such as ex-PIL bassist Jah Wobble, Adam and the Ants members Kevin Mooney, Marco Pirroni and Matthew Ashman, Helen Terry (Culture Club) and Karl Bonnie (Renegade Soundwave), and initially released only as a white label, »Witch« did not see an official release until 1993 on the Rhythm King sublabel Transglobal. This publication history, determined by typical record company quarrels, as well as the fact that »Witch« was released under the moniker © – whereby the circle in the logo of the original shows a snake about to bite its own tail;. a pseudonym that formulates an explicit criticism of the concept of copyright in close proximity to anonymity – may be responsible, among other things, for the fact that Winer’s debut only attracted attention in expert circles.

Grandmother of Trip-hop

There, however, the record triggered the greatest enthusiasm: Sean Penn is said to have reverently celebrated Winer’s songs, which in their mixture of sample-based production and spoken-word lyrics actually correspond more to the track format, at his barbecue parties; the legendary BBC DJ John Peel even called »Witch« the »very definition of a hidden gem«. Whether »grandmother of trip hop«, the title bestowed on Winer by the NME, can be considered a happy description of the facts, however, remains to be seen. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny that Madonna’s »Justify My Love«, released in November 1990, is reminiscent of Winer’s debut, both in its performance style and in terms of the hypnotic pull of the music.

Winer’s story began under the most unfavourable of circumstances: Born to a teenage girl in Boston, she was the victim of an illegal adoption hours after her birth on a Christmas Eve. One could also say: hawked for a handful of dollars in a snowy parking lot. But her adoptive grandmother, with whom Winer grew up, proved to be a stroke of luck, supporting the girl’s musical talents and literary interests to the best of her ability. Winer received piano lessons at a young age, and in her youth Winer, who lives in France since decades, where she raised five daughters and is co-editor of the estate of Beat literary figure Herbert Huncke, was part of the jazz and folk scene in Boston. Before she recorded her debut album, Winer could be heard together with Mooney and his school friend John Keogh in the formation Max – their single »Little Ghost« was later covered by Boy George.

After »Witch« further albums were produced, but most of them remained in the status of the more or less obscure and were mainly self-published as files. »Spider«, which gathered recordings from the years between 1994 and 1997, was released by Helmut Lang in a small edition and sold in his NY store to promote one of his shows. With French guitarist Christophe Van Huffel, she ran the duo Purity Supreme, from which the EP »Always Already« was released in 2011. A year earlier, Philip Marshall released the Winer album »& That Dead Horse« on his label The Tapeworm, followed in 2012 by a digital re-release of »Witch« and the compilation »& c.« on The Wormhole. With »When I Hit You – You’ll Feel It«, the reissue specialists from Light In The Attic are now releasing an anthology that provides an overview of three decades of a musical oeuvre that is unparalleled in terms of independence and originality. The different facets of Leslie Winer are better documented today than ever – the door is thus opened for (re)discovery. As a music journalist, it is rare to be able to announce something more worthwhile.


Please find the Vinyl records of Leslie Winer in the HHV Records webshop

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