New Radio: Q&A with Diana Cirullo and Emily Thompson, co-founders of The Le Sigh

The Le Sigh offers both a space and an audience for DIY female and non-binary musicians and artists.

By Grace Birnstengel
llustration by Grace Molteni

Diana Cirullo and Emily Thompson met in math class as students in Montgomery, N.J. when they were newly teenagers. The two started talking outside of school via Xanga—a once-popular blogging platform that captured the hearts of teens before MySpace’s reign—and bonded over a shared interest in music and writing. This connection would later give way to The Le Sigh, a website that features female-identifying and non-binary musicians, artists and zinemakers.

In 2012 Cirullo found herself feeling lonely and isolated, struggling with a tumultuous long distance relationship while living in New York City. After getting dumped by said boyfriend over Skype one Friday night, she knew she needed a creative distraction.

“I didn’t feel like there were many spaces accessible to me as a writer, so I decided to create one for myself,” Cirullo says. “I stayed up until 5 a.m. the night of the breakup designing the layout for the site and brainstorming posts.”

Cirullo sent Thompson a frantic Facebook message asking her to join the project, and The Le Sigh came out of the shadows and onto the web.

Though the site was launched nearly a decade after Cirullo and Thompson first met as teens, The Le Sigh’s aesthetic harkens back to nostalgic middle school notebooks—collage letters and vibrant imagery arranged with cut-out photos of your favorite bands.

After six years in existence The Le Sigh has evolved into a larger operation including not only Cirullo (founder/editor-in-chief) and Thompson (music editor), but two additional assistant music editors, an arts editor and an event coordinator as well. Together the team and a body of freelancers post regular interviews with musicians, song and music video premieres, album streams and spotlights on artists and zinemakers. The Le Sigh also boasts three curated compilations featuring original songs from bands and musicians with female and non-binary members.

Artists like Priests, Frankie Cosmos, Girlpool and Florist all contributed songs to The Le Sigh’s earlier compilations in 2013 and 2014 before becoming highly regarded mainstays in the music blogosphere. “The Le Sigh Vol. III” was released on indie label Father/Daughter Records in August and is a sure indication of which bands we should pay close attention to in the coming years.

I spoke with Cirullo and Thompson about highlighting female-identifying and non-binary musicians that might fall under the radar, platonic intimacy and the New York Times covering “Women in Rock.”

Grace Birnstengel: The Le Sigh covers artists that other blogs and sites don’t. You amplify the work of many DIY musicians who often aren’t paid attention to until or unless they’re signed to a label or have a publicist. Is this something that’s a priority at The Le Sigh, to highlight folks that are lesser known?

Emily Thompson: Yes, definitely. I think that’s pretty much our M.O. When we started out we knew that we couldn’t be the next Pitchfork or Stereogum or whatever, and we were spending a lot of time poking around Bandcamp to find new artists, so we decided to make that a priority for the site. We don’t run ads and have no reason to try and get more clicks or views or whatever, so we have the freedom to write about whatever we want, and it feels good to dedicate that to artists who might fall under the music world’s radar. In the past five-plus years we’ve never run out of artists to cover, so that just shows how much music is constantly being put out that could go unnoticed.

GB: I’m sure your inboxes get flooded with emails from DIY and smaller artists looking to be featured on The Le Sigh. How do you curate what goes on the site and the compilations among a sea of people trying to get their art and music noticed?

Diana Cirullo: We really try our best to read every email and respond to every person that writes us. Our staff is super small, and we all have full-time jobs outside of The Le Sigh, so we inevitably miss things in the process. In general we try to stay organized with a shared coverage document that tracks any new releases that have been sent to us. We pass on this on to contributors so they can volunteer for assignments and keep this list in our back pocket for planning our compilations.

While the site started as a highly curated space, it is definitely moving in a more collaborative direction as we add more writers. We would never cover something that didn’t align with our site’s values, but we are less concerned with curating a certain “aesthetic” and more focused on giving underground and underrepresented artists a platform for their work.

GB: In September the New York Times ran “Women Are Making the Best Rock Music Today” featuring a round table interview with eight musicians about their careers. The Times’ pop music team—three out of the four are men—wrote that they’re “consistently marveled at how much outstanding rock music is being made by female and non-binary performers who work just below the surface of the mainstream.” Music Twitter erupted after this was published—some folks saying it’s fantastic that these artists got recognition from one of the most ubiquitous publications, and some saying the New York Times is acting as if women and non-binary people just started playing music, treating these artists like a novelty or token. This topic is obviously very nuanced, but as a site that exclusively covers female and non-binary artists, what are your thoughts on pieces like this in mainstream media and their impact?

ET: What you said basically summarizes our opinion. When I first saw it I was slightly taken aback because their language implies that it’s surprising that female and non-binary musicians are as talented as male artists or that they just started playing music, when really they might just have the opportunity to be more visible now. It’s not like no female or non-binary musicians existed before 2017. But it is exciting to see artists like Snail Mail, Vagabon, Downtown Boys and everyone else featured in the [Times] because that publication has such a far reach. When I was younger I would use the [Times] as a resource for finding new artists. I actually had articles about Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire taped to my wall when I was a teenager. I’m sure there are still teenagers and kids who might not have access to the more intricate parts of DIY that will see this and know that female and non-binary artists are taken just as seriously as cis males, and nothing should stop them from following in their path.

GB: Does the influx of pieces like these affect how you think about your work at The Le Sigh?

DC: I honestly don’t feel it has much of an influence on our work because we started before there was an influx of pieces like this. I think the day that these pieces become obsolete, or when female and non-binary artists get enough representation that The Le Sigh doesn’t need to exist is when I’ll be happy.

GB: In August you ran an interview with former Disney stars Aly and AJ about their return to music, which you tweeted about being simultaneously on and off brand for The Le Sigh. I thought this was particularly amazing because Aly and AJ were some of the first young women I ever saw playing guitar on TV as a kid. How did this interview come about? Would you like to have more features like this in the future—more mainstream artists or comeback artists?

ET: Ha, that actually came about because a former writer and current friend had done the interview and was pitching it around and wasn’t getting much feedback, so I kind of jokingly offered that we could put it on The Le Sigh. She ended up wanting to run it with us, and “Potential Breakup Song” was really important to me and Diana in high school, so I couldn’t say no. We weren’t sure how our audience would take it, but it seemed like people were really into it. I think we’d definitely be open to these kinds of features in the future since it’s fun to not take ourselves super seriously, and if we’re not listening to bands that would be on The Le Sigh, we’re probably listening to pop music.

GB: You recently added an arts editor, Hayley Cranberry, to your staff. How has this changed how you operate and what your goals are?

DC: The Le Sigh originally started as a dumping ground for anything we found cool or neat or interesting. We weren’t always as music focused as we are now, so we’re trying to bring back other types of content onto the site. Ideally we would like to be covering underground and DIY artists across all platforms—not just music—like visual artists, zinemakers, etc.

Over the last year we’ve been collaborating with [Cranberry] to curate an all-medium arts show centered around the theme of platonic intimacy. This project personally made me feel motivated to be proactive about bringing arts content back onto the site. [Cranberry] has a lot of great ideas about how we can highlight different visual artists and their work, and we all work really well together, so it just made sense to add her to our staff. We’re really excited because it’s helped us cover more artists and reach new readers.

GB: What are some of The Le Sigh’s favorite records of 2017 thus far?

ET: Jay Som’s “Everybody Works.” I was driving around the southwest in July with one of our O.G. The Le Sigh writers, who was visiting from Australia, and we listened to this album a ton (or heaps if you’re Australian). It’s so beautiful, and I listen to it whenever I feel stressed, anxious or any bad feeling.

Charly Bliss’ “Guppy.” I listened to this album super hard when it first came out and have been revisiting it again lately. It’s so infectious and literally never gets boring.

Haim’s “Something to Tell You.” I used to hate HAIM, and now I love HAIM, so this is my repentance for probably tweeting something salty about them in 2013.

DC:  SZA’s “Ctrl.” I first fell in love with “Ctrl” on a family vacation to the Caribbean where I walked around the beach in a black hoodie like an angsty teen and listened to the album on repeat for hours. “Ctrl” will give you chills from start to finish. It’s soft and moody and will make your heart ache in the best way possible.

Lorde’s “Melodrama.” Lorde is one of our favorite Scorpios, and this album fucking rules. We stan her so hard at The Le Sigh that we bought tickets to the “Melodrama” tour almost a year in advance.

The Le Sigh Vol. III.” OK, so I guess I’m biased about this one, but I’m very proud we were able to release “The Le Sigh Vol. III” this year. Every year since 2013—with the exception of a few skipped years—we’ve released a tape compilation that reflects some of our favorite female and non-binary artists making music. You can stream the full compilation or buy the tape via our friends at Father/Daughter Records.

Grace Birnstengel is a writer and editor living in Minneapolis and working in St. Paul. She’s the associate editor at PBS’ Next Avenue, a contributor at Stereogum and an editor at The Riveter where she writes the “New Radio” music column. Follow her on Twitter @grace__ and Instagram @gracebirnstengel.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.