Lesli Wood has achieved almost every goal she's set for herself. She's a professional lawyer. And her band, The Redwood Plan, has played to big crowds at Seattle's Bumbershoot Festival. She chalks it all up to a "ruthless" work ethic and good planning. But there was one thing that didn't fit into Lesli's plans: a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis. And it's caused her to redefine what it means to succeed in music and in her day job.
You’re listening to Day Job.
A podcast about how musicians make it work.
I’m your host, Joshua McNichols.
This is episode 3.
MUSIC: “You Are The One.”
Lesli Wood heads a band called the Redwood Plan. And before that, she headed another band called Ms. Led… and before that she worked as a professional pianist.
Basically, Lesli achieved her life goal of becoming a professional musician very, very early in her life.
Right after high school.
In fact, she graduated high school a year and a half early so she could get a jump start on her musical career.
WOOD: “All high school kids want to get out of high school. But went out there and I made it happen. I took college classes. I tested out of things. I mean, I researched it.”
That’s just who Lesli is.
She makes plans.
And she doesn’t let anything stand in her way.
She ran her band that way, too.
They were on a trajectory.
They were going to become stars.
MUSIC: “My Pocket Island”
When Lesli got a little older, she decided she wanted to become a lawyer too.
So between performances with her band, she studied law.
WOOD: “I was studying all the time. At shows…”
DAY JOB: “Would you slip in studying on nights you were performing?”
WOOD: “All the time. In between bands, before our set, after our set. I mean, standing, waiting for sound check. Standing on stage, during sound check, books out, papers out, outlines out, constantly studying. You know, because I’m waiting for them to say can you test your guitar? And when they’re testing the drums, I’m studying.”
Lesli had a plan for her education.
But she had no real experience.
WOOD: “I’d never tried a case, I’d never argued in front of a judge.”
Lesli applied for an externship at the public defender’s office. It was a sweltering hot summer day. And the air conditioner was broken. An attorney named Linda Lillevec listened patiently as Lesli presented her resume.
WOOD: “I had done all this volunteer work and I was told she’d be really impressed by that.”
Then, Linda said “I’m going to give you a hypothetical situation. A juvenile stands accused of a crime. I will leave the room. You have five minutes to come up with a defense.”
WOOD: “I just wanted the earth to open up below me. I was sweating profusely, I was sweating through all my polyester clothing.”
Five minutes later, Linda came back.
WOOD: “I think I gurgled out some argument – something I’d heard on TV– pounding my fist on the table, saying “This is what’s right in the best interest of the child.”
Lesli got the externship and Linda became a trusted mentor.
Lesli seemed well on her way to achieving her second big goal: to become a lawyer.
WOOD: “I was in my second year of law school. And by that time I was externing at the public defender. And I was taking a full class load. And I was playing and touring with the band. And I started to notice my hands go numb. And it was on a Friday afternoon and I was having a lot of problems with numbness. And I used to work out a lot, so I though I probably pinched a nerve. But by Sunday of that same weekend, I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t roll over, like in bed, I couldn’t roll onto my side. “
Lesli went to the doctor. The doctor said she had Multiple Schlerosis, M.S. It’s a progressive disease. That means it typically gets worse over time.
WOOD: “And my concern was that I was gonna be unable to type. Be unable to speak in court. I was expecting to not be able to walk at the end of the month. And that was gonna be it. Not be able to play guitar ever again and that was gonna be it. I think what was scariest for me was that I didn’t know.”
And that was new for Lesli. She’d always known what she wanted to do. She’s always been able to come up with a plan. Lesli returned to her doctors. She told them:
WOOD: “I don’t care if you stick needles in my eye. You have to fix me.”
The doctors told her she needed to reduce her stress.
But stress was what drove Lesli.
She didn’t who she would be without that stress.
Her condition grew worse.
WOOD: “And I couldn’t dress myself, and I couldn’t feed myself. And I would dream every night that I was fine. And I would wake in the morning and I would try to feel my hands. And I couldn’t feel my hands. And it was so frustrating. It was so terrifying.”
Eventually, Lesli’s attack died down.
But the attack had shaken her deeply.
She put the band on hold.
And she started making backup plans for her life.
She could work in the back of the law firm.
Stay away from the stressful courtroom.
Lesli went to talk to her mentor, the public defender, Linda.
WOOD: “She didn’t give me any sympathy. She didn’t go “oh, I’m really sorry.” She was just like “get out there and do it. Keep doing what you’re doing. And if there is a point you can’t do it, you stop then. But until then, you can do this. And it was amazing to me.”
Linda introduced Lesli to other lawyers in Seattle who also had M.S.
They told her:
You don’t need to let this disease drive the bus.
And even though she couldn’t play the guitar
And her speech was kind of slurred
She decided to play a solo show at a little club.
As she plunked through her short set on the piano,
She remembers thinking
WOOD: “Honestly, I was thinking: This Sucks.”
Lesli realized she needed to tell the audience about her condition.
WOOD: “I was kind of trying to keep it under wraps. But at that point, I just explained, you know, I’d been diagnosed, I wasn’t sure what it was gonna look like. I just sort of made it part of the banter. Like, ‘let’s see what THIS song sounds like.’ And everyone was very supportive of me.
Lesli had faced her fear as a performer by playing a solo show.
But the band – that was different. If she couldn’t give everything to the band – she worried it might fall apart.
WOOD: “I just had a total meltdown realizing – wait a second – what if – I don’t want to be running a race I’m never going to win. I mean, why as a musician do you have to constantly be getting to this next level in order to be a musician. I mean, I don’t have to make partner in order for people to call me a lawyer. What makes me a musician – wha tmakes us a band – is that we’re out there, doing this.”
Lesli presented her epiphany to the band.
And she wondered: would they leave?
WOOD: “Everyone sort of got in this band with the idea that we were on this trajectory. And I had a lot of insecurity about that because I thought the band wasn’t going to be interested in being in the band if I’m not constantly ‘okay, here’s the next big show and here’s the next big tour.’ But everybody was like: whatever you want to do. They said: ‘We are a band. We are a unit. We’re going to be a band regardless of whether we get on a label.’
MUSIC: “We Are The Team.”
Lesli still makes plans. But she’s changed how she defines success. There are days when her M.S. flares up and she can’t come in to work. But she’s grateful - grateful to have a day job she loves. And on really good days, you can hear her sing about that gratitude with some of her closest friends.
MUSIC: “The Scenery And The Melody.”
You’ve been listening to Day Job, on Northwester dot org.
You can hear more music by Lesli Wood and The Redwood Plan online.
We also have links to an earlier band Lesli played in, called Ms. Led.
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