Though Austin-based band Moving Panoramas is a trio, for a while it was frontwoman Leslie Sisson who commanded the attention. The title of their debut album “One,” released last September, was a nod to Sisson’s traumas. She writes the songs’ lyrics and having written most of them before the band formed, it’s her voice that rings through them.
Music is what she uses to heal and what she uses to cope. It’s a necessary part of her life, and has been from the beginning.
“It’s just a part of me,” Sisson said. “It’s something that’s always been an outlet for me as a kid. I don’t think that I decided (to be a musician) one day, it’s just something I’ve always done.”
When she first started taking piano lessons in preschool, she quickly moved on to the guitar and cello before joining her first band at 15. In the small Dallas suburb of Duncanville, Sisson said there weren’t many bands around and even less with female members. Though her father was a musician, as well, he worried about her turning it into a career.
“As a teenage girl, he thought it would be an excuse for guys to get in my pants,” Sisson said. “I mean, he was also worried about me surviving and eating, but I make it work.”
Since then, Sisson hasn’t stopped playing. She never intended to make a full-time job out of it, but it’s something she said she’ll always be doing.
“It’s the one thing I feel like I can do right,” Sisson said. “It’s my own thing. It’s hard to explain. I don’t know what I would do without it. It’s just an appendage for me. It’s part of my brain and I’ll be doing it ‘til after I die.”
Though it’s always played a major role in her life, in the years preceding Moving Panoramas, Sisson heavily relied on her music after a series of traumatic events left her shaken.
Her mother had recently died, prompting her to make the move back to Austin from New York, and just a few months later, Sisson became the target of a home invasion-turned kidnapping.
Sisson escaped, but was left with the memories of what happened. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder but refused to take any medication after watching her mother struggle with addiction. Throughout her battle with the disorder, Sisson said it did bring her closer to understanding her mother, who also suffered from PTSD.
“A lot of people don’t understand what PTSD is like,” Sisson said. “I never understood it until it happened to me. I thought (my mom) could just get over it or fix it and I know that’s not the case now.”
While she went through therapy, in the end, Sisson said the only thing that motivated her to move past what happened was music.
“I tried to heal through music,” Sisson said. “When I start to have a rough time, I have my music. When I play, it really takes me back to a grounded place. Creating something helps me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile instead of going into the spiral I saw my mom go into.”
She began writing, creating the songs that would go on to form Moving Panorama’s debut album. Her numbness comes through in many of the songs, reflected in the distant emotion of her atmospheric vocals.
At the time, Sisson rarely left her home, finding it difficult to venture out into the world again. Her only escape was her teaching job at Austin’s School of Rock, where she met Moving Panoramas’ bassist Rozie Castoe — one of her students.
“She’s insanely talented and I was just drawn to her,” Sisson said. “I thought about taking her under my wing. I wanted to mentor her.”
Around that time, Sisson had also been invited to perform with local band Black Forest Fire by her friend and drummer, Karen Skloss. The pieces started coming together when Sisson decided to head to the studio and record some of the material she had written.
She brought Skloss and Castoe along, and after they began recording, the trio decided to perform a show and were quickly offered to play another one. It was then that Moving Panoramas — known as the Panoramas at the time — was born.
“I didn’t know a whole band was going to come out of it,” Sisson said. “It turned into one and it’s been unlike any band I’ve ever been in. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
In the studio, what was originally Sisson’s vision quickly became the bands. While they were recording, the combination of Sisson’s dreamy lyrics, Skloss’ echoed drums and Castoe’s pulsing bass lines allowed Moving Panoramas to transition from separate musicians to “one.”
With a new sound in mind, Sisson began tweaking her songs little by little to showcase the band’s skill and strengths.
“Before, I had no idea what kind of band I was writing for,” Sisson said. “Now, I’m writing songs that will highlight our sound as a band.”
Shortly after naming their band, they were contacted by a French band with the same name. The Panoramas became Moving Panoramas — a 19th century design concept used in popular plays. Sisson said she appreciated the way the term fit with the band’s sound.
“I’d been working as an audio editor and we kind of paint with sounds,” Sisson said. “That kind of resonated with me. It was kind of a blessing we had to change our name. It fits what I’m trying to do visually and sonically with the band.”
The band has received a warm reception in Austin and Sisson said they’re planning to test the waters in other cities with a tour this year. Though they’ve been referred to as a “girl band,” Sisson shies away from the label.
“It wasn’t originally supposed to be an all-girl band, it just turned out that way,” Sisson said. “I never think about (us being a ‘girl band’). It can be risky because we get labeled as a girl band, but we’re just musicians. I do like the vibe of playing with girls, though.”
Last year, the Austin Music Census revealed that Moving Panoramas and other female-led bands were in the minority, with males comprising most of the performers in the city. Sisson, however, said Austin is where she’s found a close-knit community of female musicians.
“There are lots of awesome girls rocking out here,” Sisson said. “Being in a town where I’m surrounded by so many great female musicians, it was kind of like a dream.”
Moving Panoramas’ has become Sisson’s family. She said she isn’t expecting anything when they go on tour, but is eager to see where it takes them as musicians.
“I never had any sisters, so I feel like (Skloss and Castoe) have become my sisters in rock and roll,” Sisson said. “We never went into this to try and make money. I just want us to get out as a band, get on the road and maybe make another record.”