In this edition of my blog series feature Behind the Art, meet Leighsa Montrose. Upon her husband’s suicide, Leighsa was suddenly thrust further into managing Ronnie Montrose’s music and his estate. This amazing woman has survived trauma and has come out on top; Leighsa now focuses on helping others cope.
Behind the Art: Leighsa Montrose
Manager, RoMoCo, LLC and the Ronnie Montrose estate. Follow Leighsa online.
As Ronnie Montrose’s wife, you happened into the music business out of necessity. At what point, did Ronnie ask you to assist him in his business?
In the fall of 2010. This was after he had taken a 2-year hiatus from playing/touring as he was healing from prostate cancer.
How did that start?
He had decided to go back on tour. One day he said to me after not opening his studio door for two years, “I think I want to play again.”
What all did you do during that time for Ronnie’s business?
Everything a manager of a band would do (and quite a bit more not listed): negotiating contracts, advancing shows, writing and editing his stage plot and rider, coordinating travel/logistical arrangements, booking interviews, assisting Ronnie behind the scenes, being his handler, etc., etc., etc. I am definitely sure I am forgetting something here. Oh, and lots of ironing. He said he needed “wardrobe options.”
How was it to help with the business and be married to your rock star husband?
Let me break this in to two parts here:
1) The business end comes naturally for me. I have always worked for myself. For 22 years I have had my own company: Branch Out Floral and Event Design in San Francisco. I recently started an events operation business, as well. I am well-versed in events, the understanding of flow, all aspects of coordination and operations, and know that timing is key on the day of an event, or as Ronnie would say, “gig day.”
2) What I can say is agreeing to help Ronnie with his company and the touring aspect was not a world I was familiar with, of course. I had to learn “a new language” and understand licensing, music rights, terminology for the business end and the show end, relating to, interacting with and understanding the dynamics and nuances of “personalities,” how to layout shows, negotiate, and work through the booking to the day of a show. We would both often laugh when I would tell him that he tricked me in to working for him. It was a joy and a blessing for us to be together, and at the same time, I had no idea all that I was agreeing to until I was right in the middle of actually making it all happen.
Now I see this is a three-part question: The rock star husband. He once told me that going on stage evokes a different persona than the man I know and lived with and was married to. And that ego comes in to play here for him to be able to harness and do what he did, and of course, deep love of his craft and his technical ability, as well. I never realized how much dedication to daily playing is involved as well . . . hours and hours on end. He simply loved to play.
How did you balance work and marriage?
Since we had gone through the scare of his prostate cancer together and all that that implies, we lived in such appreciation of sharing our lives together and knew that no one is promised tomorrow. It’s something we would often remind one another of. That knowledge kept the pettiness and taking-each-other-for-granted aspect out of our lives. Of course we fought like married couples do at times, though it was never long-lasting. He would laugh when I reminded him we were just having an “energy exchange.” We were deeply in love and grateful to spend time together like we did. I will not say it was always a balanced measurement of work versus personal life/marriage. Work had a way of overshadowing our life at times. That is a rough demand to put on a marriage. I was running my event design company while running his company, as well. I don’t recommend it, as the hours were long and fully absorbed me at times. As far as our marriage, Ronnie was a lovely man to me—respectful, considerate, caring, and supportive . . . and without a doubt, the kindest person I have ever met. I told him how blessed I was to be married to my best friend and guardian angel. It was true.
He loved cooking and to do so for others. When we were home, every meal was created by him with depth and many hours of pure enjoyment in the kitchen. Can you imagine? Full on breakfast, lunch and dinner every day . . . low blood sugar was not a factor at our home.
Upon Ronnie’s untimely death, you were suddenly thrust deeper into the music business than you probably ever cared to imagine. You now manage Ronnie’s company RoMoCo and his estate. How did you go about learning the business side?
Luckily, I had been involved in the business end of RoMoCo since 2007. I learned so much from him even though he did not like to deal with “business.” Ronnie was a very intelligent man, and was eager to share his knowledge with me. Though we talked daily about every aspect of the business he was dealing with, I chose not to have to speak with lawyers, labels, and artists—other than his band—until his passing. I had always stayed away from interacting with his colleagues and lawyers when he was alive. I knew they wanted to talk directly to him and I respected that.
Though the music lives on, the general public doesn’t likely realize what all is involved in managing posthumous business affairs. Can you please share with my readers what managing an artist’s estate entails?
Oh my goodness . . . more than I could have believed. First, ensuring all personal affairs and the estate is in order. Then taking care of the on-goings of running his business, respecting his branding and musical legacy, and keeping this all going. This is open-ended and does not stop. I know I am being brief here. Honestly, I could go on.
We all know that the music industry is a male-dominant business. As a woman fully in charge of Ronnie’s music, what gender-based obstacles have you encountered and how did you overcome them?
The unfortunate experiences I have encountered were at the time of planning and production (mind you all within five weeks after his death) for the filming of the TV broadcast and DVD of A Concert for Ronnie Montrose. And then well into the first 18 months of his passing. There were individuals who exhibited complete lack of compassion or consideration, and displayed total disregard for the “wife” behind the “business” representative that I am. I had just lost my husband in the most painful, heinous, tragic, and traumatic way. For some, this was not a factor that entered in their minds when interacting with me. I have come to learn this was nothing personal to me, only to them. Everyone in life has their motivators. I now understand . . . this was way too much for me to take on in light of all that I was going through emotionally. I did not even consider saying, “No, let’s wait a year to do the concert.” It would have been completely understandable in this case. That might have buffeted me a bit. I certainly got caught in the undertow, painfully, as you can imagine. When it comes to business, not everyone cares about another’s personal life. I have learned well.
As you can imagine, Jill, I’ve learned much about death, grief, grieving, and mourning a loved one. And about people and how they deal with this. I have had to quickly learn to be “tough-skinned” when an unconscious, unaware being lets a cliché or one-liner fall out of their mouth. There are still many who have no idea whatsoever how to be present/mindful when communicating with a grieving person or someone who has experienced the death of a loved one through trauma and tragedy. This really comes down to an individual’s own relationship with pain, loss, and grief. I get it loud and clear now.
Do you have any industry friends who help and inspire you?
Without a doubt! I need to take this opportunity to name them all, and pay them the most heartfelt propers:
CJ Hutchins, Ed Roth, Linda Arcello-Earl, Jill Meniketti, Michael Indelicato, Michael Molenda, Jaan Uhelszki, Ricky Phillips, and Eric Singer.
These Dear Ones have been instrumental in stepping up after Ronnie passed, guiding me through his profession with honesty and integrity. Truly, I love you all. Each of you have had a hand in guiding me to be the person I am today. I have so much appreciation that words simply do not do justice.
Wow, thank you, Leighsa. I feel honored to be included.
Three and half years ago we lost one of the guitar greats when Ronnie took his life. You’ve shared a lot with me, privately, since that tragic day (I’ll never forget getting the news at our NY hotel on tour). But you’ve recently said that you’re finally ready to talk publicly about it. Can you take us through that day and/or the days leading up to it?
I more than welcome talking about his passing. I know Ronnie would want me to. If our story can stop one person in their tracks to get the help they need and then accept it, that is a gift to all of us. No one should live with chronic depression since the time of being a young child, coupled with years and years of emotional pain while trying their best to hide it from others.
My husband did just that. He was always “flipping it,” by being there for others when they needed support and wanted to share their story with him, and ask him his advice. He was an empathic being, always willing to listen, to say the least. To start, there is no way to make this easy to read. I am saddened for that—truly, for all of us.
The morning of the day he passed started out like it always did at home: me waking up to him playing his guitar in the living room. Then, a sweet good morning kiss, and talking together over a cup of coffee. He made a great breakfast too. We kissed each other again and said, “I love you.” I remember all of this like it was right now. I had a deadline at my studio and said I’d be back in 90 minutes. I came back to find he had taken his life in our home.
The Ronnie I knew was a complete balance of opposites and as he liked to say a “contradiction:” fragile and sensitive, yet strong as steel. He lived with severe depression, and to compound it even more, alcoholism. We would often talk into the early morning hours about cause and effect, and a healthy way to live. I think in the end, it all became insurmountable to him and he was overwhelmed. He could not fathom handling or navigating “the way out.” He was “tired,” as he would often say to me. This was the Ronnie that you did not see on stage.
I am going to say it here because I never have . . .
At the time, as you can imagine, I was stunned, shocked, grief stricken, and had just encountered the most traumatic moment of my life. To compound it even more, within less than two hours, someone had called a musician in Los Angeles who had played for Ronnie. . . . And that was that. The calls, emails, and texts started coming in. News of his passing was all over the internet. I was not even afforded the opportunity to call his family before the world knew. Immediately after he died, we had no privacy whatsoever. It was the most horrible experience.
I was judged for what I was and wasn’t doing, or for what they thought I was doing on behalf of us or to them. And this is from people who were supposedly close to us. Of course, only very few took the time to talk to me directly before judging. That is the way it goes. When something like this happens, we all learn who will be there for the “long haul,” as Ronnie use to tell me. He would always say, “My dear, be very clear about and know this.”
If that wasn’t enough, as the weeks passed, certain individuals and publications in the media did not like the way we told the story of his passing, saying they would “get to the bottom of this and find out what we were hiding.” I was told by the coroner that these entities had already applied to receive his report. I knew I had to do something and speak out on behalf of my husband and to be honest with the details. I was not going to let anyone spin a story about him. I had already heard enough about his “demons.” That is just another blanket word often used without truly knowing the facts. Michael Molenda, Editor in Chief of Guitar Player Magazine, worked with me to write a story on Ronnie’s behalf. After that, all the media could do was use sound bites from our story. Even with that, and not any surprise to me, they spun some lame drivel however they could.
The music industry’s highs and severe lows are not for the faint of heart, and touring is indeed grueling and taxing on even the most grounded souls. Mental health issues are seemingly widespread among the arts, and alcohol, drugs, and depression exacerbate that. Earlier this year you shared with me a Team Rock article that claims more than 60% of musicians have suffered from depression or other psychological problems. I’m guessing similar studies would yield the same results throughout the arts.
What do you feel could be done to help combat this?
My that is a tough question. Like I said, it is all about cause and effect. What we think, believe, and experience shapes us. Then, what we add to our bodies, our vessels, and how we treat and care for ourselves have a direct result as to the quality of life we will live. I have come to learn that the mind tries (constantly) to be in the driver’s seat, running the show for our bodies. If we “listen” to our body, we will get the answers and can then determine what we can do to help ourselves. OK, I know this is deep and some may say, “What?” I am saying that living in your body and not your head is the start. Live simply and recognize/pay attention to yourself. . . . Each of us may have painful life experiences that need to be dealt with face-on. Acknowledge that, and then ask for help. More importantly, once you do, accept that help. You will be surprised; people are compassionate and want to do what they can to help you help yourself find another way to live.
I’ve always lived by the quote from Stanley Kubrick: “However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.”
As far as a friend and family member, if you see someone who you may believe is having a rough time, ask them. We never truly know what someone may be going through. That may be exactly the thing to help turn it in another direction for them.
As far as the fellow artists, you all see the statistics noted above that I’ve shared with Jill. It is no joke. For some artists, the ones they travel with on the road—other artists, their support crew—are their chosen family, their brothers and sisters. Help one another—please, now. There are non-profits in the music industry. More needs to be done to help artists deal with, get help, and be educated as to the long-term effects of chemical and alcohol dependency. Also, providing them with different modalities of therapy for mental illness and depression would be a huge benefit. I would definitely be open to working with these non-profits to provide these services to artists and to do outreach, to provide a space where they feel supported and able to accept these services that they are so deserving of receiving. It always saddens me to read the after-the-fact or finally coming-out and speaking-up stories. It doesn’t always have to be that way.
You’ve been through quite an ordeal, but you’ve come out the other side with amazing resiliency, which certainly did not happen overnight. Grief, of course, is different for everyone. What were the things that best helped you through?
For me, dealing with what I saw, experienced, and endured, I had to get some serious help. I thought I could apply that saying “lean in to it” here, too. . . . No way. Grief at this level, coupled with trauma/PTSD was not something I knew how to handle. I received many different modalities of therapy: grief therapy, Survivors of Suicide group, a group for widows/widowers, PTSD therapy, tapping, and finally, Yoga for Grief Relief. I remember talking with the chief of police and some of the officers here in my town. I asked them, “How do you do this every day?” They shared with me that they implement Critical Incident debriefing and stress management. I read about it and thought I had better face this pain and do the same. I did not want it to be 10 years later and I’d never dealt with this. I know my husband would want me to live a peaceful and beautiful life. I can hear him saying to me right now, “Do not let this get the better of you.”
You’ve found a wonderful way to channel your healing in helping others by your volunteer work with Kara Grief and First Responders. Helping families going through shock, trauma, and grief is an amazing gift for you to provide! How did you happen into these organizations?
Kara Grief was recommended to me by a dear friend who had lost his wife and son due to illnesses. Finally, about six months after Ronnie passed, I couldn’t handle it anymore. I wasn’t sleeping much, as I was afraid knowing I would have flashbacks when I opened my eyes. And I had a hard time eating for months. I remember thinking, I am never going to stop crying. I went to a drop-in grief group one day. Numbly, I told my story. After the group, one of the counselors stopped me. She suggested to me that I meet with a highly-recommended therapist named Sue Shaffer, who works with Kara. I am forever grateful to her. She is the first person who I can honestly say showed me there is a way through grief and trauma. She laid out a plan for me to get PTSD debriefing with the Early Intervention Clinic. From there, I went on to do other types of alternative therapies too. I remember telling her, “Sue, I am so screwed . . . there is no way out of this excruciating sadness and pain.” She showed me that that was not my only way to live and that I had a choice.
And how has this work helped you?
In ways that I would have never imagined. The Yoga for Grief Relief speaks to my heart. I do this type of therapy now, and will be doing training early next year to be able to share this with others. Also, as a peer counselor, I currently support young men and women who have had a spouse or partner die. And I volunteer for Kara. Kara is an amazing place. They provide grief support to individuals and families who have had a significant person in their life die. They also work with the community, schools, business, and First Responders. In addition, they provide training, education, and supervision to those, like myself, who want to help others. Through Kara, I am currently training to work with First Responders, to deal with Critical Incidents/stress, and with individuals whose lives have been touched by suicide.
Please recommend three songs (any genre, any artist) and tell us why you like them.
Nature Boy—Nat King Cole. Ronnie would sing and play this song on his guitar for me. It is an absolutely beautiful song. When he passed, I had these lines of the song tattooed on my arm:
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy
One and a Half—Ronnie Montrose. Ronnie played this song in the very early morning hours, every day in our home, over and over and over again, for years. I am not exaggerating here. I honestly could not tell you how many times I have heard it. And what is so lovely is that I would wake up to him playing this beautiful music . . . nothing like you hear on the album. I have heard so many versions—slow, rich, textural, extended, and at times with other genre influences coming through. I wish you could hear what I hear right now just describing this to you.
How Do You Stop—Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, sung by Joni Mitchell. The first time we were together, alone, he played this song for me. This was an important song to us over the years, and we played it at all our special occasions. Ronnie loved his friend, Dan Hartman, dearly, and shared the story of this song with me.
As I’m also an author, I’d love for you to recommend three books and tell us why you like them.
Yoga for Grief Relief—Antonio Sausys. This book and its author has provided me with monumental grief relief with this simple and transformative practice. I honestly could go on and on… I want everyone on the planet to know about this book.
Tuesdays with Morrie—Mitch Albom. I just read this book in what felt like an hour. It distills compassion for ourselves and others and putting all things about living life in perspective. One of my favorites.
Thug Kitchen—Thug Kitchen LLC. A cookbook that just flat out makes me laugh. I am a vegetarian and always looking for new tastes/ideas. This book has super-great recipes.
Thank you, Leighsa, for taking the time to open up to us.
A Concert for Ronnie Montrose, Antonio Sausys, Branch Out Floral and Event Design, CJ Hutchins, Critical Incident, Dan Hartman and Charlie Midnight, Early Intervention Clinic, Ed Roth, Eric Singer, First Responders, Guitar Player Magazine, Jaan Uhelszki, Jill Meniketti, Joni Mitchell, Kara Grief, Leighsa Montrose, Linda Arcello-Earl, Michael Indelicato, Michael Molenda, Mitch Albom, Nat King Cole, Nature Boy, One and a Half, Ricky Phillips, RoMoCo, Ronnie Montrose, Survivors of Suicide, Team Rock, Thug Kitchen, Thug Kitchen LLC, Tuesdays with Morrie, Yoga for Grief Relief