Don’t Stop Believing: Moving Panoramas’ Leslie Sisson Overcomes the Trauma That Birthed In Two
Sophomore LP spins a sequel to the shoegazers’ extraordinary journey
Moving Panoramas is a band from Austin that began as an outlet for trauma and tragedy.
I started the group in the years following my mom's sudden passing from a drug overdose. Then, I was randomly drugged and kidnapped by a murderer in the same home she'd died in months earlier (revisit "Believe," Sept. 25, 2015). I bought the small house while in college here, well before the Austin market exploded, and intended the property as a nest egg. All too soon, it became a haunted cave where I couldn't sleep anymore.
PTSD is a real thing. My mom had it, but I didn't understand it when she was alive. She also had numerous autoimmune diseases, like lupus, diabetes, fibromyalgia, and IBD, along with bipolar disorder, depression, and anxiety. "Invisible diseases," she called them, and they required bags of medication, causing pill addictions that led to her premature end.
When she was alive, I sympathized with her, especially about the depression and anxiety that I, too, suffered from. Only after she was gone did it fully register that little by little, these disorders and diseases have been passed on to me. In the past two years, my body's become a temple to invisible diseases.
PTSD, anxiety, and depression drove the first Moving Panoramas album in 2015, One. For In Two, a once perfect immune system suddenly imploded as I undertook our sophomore LP. By the time the album releases on February 22, it'll be just shy of two years from when we began recording.
From Olivia Newton-John to Sinéad O'Connor
Aside from Moving Panoramas, I also have a country act, the Rated Exes, which sometimes doubles as a tribute band. On Valentine's Day 2017, I prepped my hair for a wig being utilized in an Olivia Newton-John tribute show at 3ten ACL Live. Looking in the mirror, I noticed something was off. The top of my head appeared bigger than normal. I took photos and texted my dad, asking if I was balding.
That happened Tuesday. By Friday, I found myself scrambling to find a primary care physician because the hair loss had gotten worse very quickly. Anywhere I called either wasn't taking new patients or had stopped taking my insurance. The only place I found was a community clinic with residents for doctors, one of whom grilled me for hours while clearly judging what I eat and drink. I don't treat myself poorly, but being a touring musician, I can't exactly be keto or Whole30 or whatever fad diet 24/7.
She wanted to prescribe me antidepressants and antianxiety meds because of my recent history. Asked if stress caused the hair loss, she took a quick look and said, "No, it's just female pattern balding." Then she wanted to prescribe Rogaine. I decided to get a second opinion.
For starters, I spent the next month researching a number of possibilities and solutions, including immediate removal of a hormonal IUD I'd had in for barely a year. A nurse practitioner at the clinic that installs them free for low-income women talked me into hormonal over nonhormonal, even though I'd informed them of my background and risk of blood clots, which forced me to quit hormonal birth control years ago.
After I had the IUD yanked (ouch), I saw my OB-GYN, who did blood work that came out normal. I was also experiencing weird pelvic pains that I thought were due to the IUD, so she did an ultrasound to rule out any reproductive organ issues or cancers. We repeated the procedures multiple times, because the pain only worsened and eventually spread to the whole left side of my body.
By the time South by Southwest 2017 hit, my hair was falling out in clumps and parting like the Red Sea down the top-center of my head in a reverse-mohawk fashion. My insurance was limited, so none of the doctors or specialists in network could see me for months. By then, I'd be fronting a Sinéad O'Connor tribute. My festival 'do proved pretty inventive, though, complete with side ponytails and barrettes to keep the comb-over from blowing over onstage like a toupee.
Afterward, a friend started sending me articles about women going through rapid hair loss, complete with fashion wigs, fun hats, and those who embraced baldness freely. I began to accept I might be completely bald soon. It could be worse. It can always be worse. So said my mom all too often.
But something else was off. I wasn't feeling right inside. Raspy of voice, exhausted all the time, and with my digestive system a wreck, I found myself more and more anxious. The pelvic pains worsened, my muscles and joints ached, and I started getting loopy/foggy/vertigo. The list goes on.
Following SXSW, Moving Panoramas went straight into recording the next album, which I hoped to knock out in time for a fall 2017 release. Due to the severe lack of energy, I could only work a few hours at a time in the studio before losing total focus/steam and having to call it quits for the day. No matter what I ate, I felt light-headed and hungry – even on a full stomach. And my hair kept falling out.
Finally, I called a hair loss specialist who was a friend from childhood/high school. Preparing to meet with him in Dallas, I sent pics at his behest. Immediately, he recognized it as alopecia areata and advised seeing a dermatologist. My insurance couldn't arrange a consultation for months, so I paid out of pocket to see one and they injected my scalp with steroids.
The dermatologist mentioned he used to work for an endocrinologist and had noticed my thyroid levels were on the high end of normal. He suggested seeing an endocrinologist, which resulted in another many months' wait. Still convinced this was all stress related, I started getting massages from a close friend, who recommended another friend who used to be a doctor but quit the medical field because of the pressure to fulfill pharmaceutical kickbacks.
As a naturopath in private practice and out of network, he wasn't cheap, but he gave musicians a discount. At this point, I didn't care about the money anymore. He ran extensive tests on my hormones, adrenal glands, blood cells, blood sugar, and thyroid. When the results came in, he knew what was wrong immediately: I have Hashimoto's disease. He prescribed thyroid meds and put me on a strict no-gluten-soy-dairy diet. My hair started growing back and things started feeling normal again.
Then, as luck would have it, I became pregnant, unplanned, with someone who I had just started seeing but had known for 20 years and used to play music with. Something was off there, too. My hormone levels were extremely low for a pregnancy, which eventually led to what appeared to be a miscarriage. The pain was intense and odd, so I called my nurse and they suggested an ER visit to be safe.
At the hospital, they ran an ultrasound, MRI, and more tests. The OB-GYN on call that day said they saw fluid in my pelvic area and were concerned it could be internal bleeding. They suspected an ectopic pregnancy and operated immediately because ectopic pregnancies can be fatal.
I went under wondering if I'd wake up. If I did, the probability of losing an ovary was high. That was a weird goodbye to my dad on the phone and to my best friend who was there holding my hand before the lights went out. (Note: The best friend was not the guy, but whatever. C'est la vie.)
They found a mass on one of my ovaries and some endometriosis, which they removed. The pregnancy, while ectopic, didn't appear to be in my fallopian tubes but rather outside of my uterus. So, I didn't die and still had my parts intact, yet I had to cancel Moving Panoramas' big show the next day at Mohawk for their first Hot Summer Nights.
I thought I could pull a Roky Erickson and play sitting down, but by the time the anesthesia wore off, I could barely move. At one point, I lay down and couldn't get myself back up. There, I passed out from the pain while home alone.
Blondies Have More Fun
All this started making me question the alone-ness I practice and praise in my music. Is "One" really the only number? I mean, that song is mostly about loving yourself and being okay with being alone, but had that idea pushed me to the point of isolation and dying alone?
It's different these days than it was in our parents' days. We're independent women now, who might be lucky to find a partner because we want to, not because we have to. Something else my mom taught me: Support yourself and the rest will follow.
That's what this new album's about, Two-ness. Multiplying One by expanding the sonics, In Two addresses relationships. Many songs were inspired by my mother, one of which is combined with our drummer's mother, who passed away during SXSW 2017. Some songs are PTSD sequels to One; others are social/political. Mostly, it's about resilience and fighting the good fight – even if it breaks you In Two.
Finally, In Two acknowledges all the work required before even considering the next chapter of my life. Number one was getting out of the house where all the trauma happened, particularly since the D.A. on my kidnapper's capital murder case asked me to testify. I definitely didn't want to be in the house at that time.
In Austin's raging real estate market, you'd think that my centrally located cottage would sell in a heartbeat. And yet, the modest house I bought in college has suddenly found itself in a flood plain that didn't exist when I bought it. Although it's never flooded, a buyer would need flood insurance and, of course, risks a 25-year or 100-year flood. That lowers the asking price by $100,000.
For years, I searched for another home to buy or rent but kept hitting walls, especially on a musician's salary. As luck would have it, I'd picked up some contract work within walking distance of an RV park where I went to look at an Airstream trailer for sale. The park manager encouraged me to buy one and said some RV spots were opening up. So I got a loan, bought a travel trailer, took up residence in the RV park, and stayed there when working long hours. Huge game changer.
I felt safer and slept better in that RV park than anywhere I'd ever slept. I even felt secure walking my dog at night there, something I hadn't been able to do since the kidnapping. Things were looking up.
I celebrated my hair growing back in a squirrelly, salt-and-pepper mohawk by going blond for a New Year's Eve Blondie tribute at Hotel Vegas a year ago. Admittedly, part of me didn't want to look the same when I had to testify against the kidnapper. Luckily, weeks before his trial, he pleaded out to two life sentences without the option of parole or appeal. Chapter finally closed.
My health remained good ... for a while. Putting in 60-80 hours editing reality TV, I relapsed into the pelvic pain I'd experienced before that surgery, now increased, along with back pain, joint pain, muscle pain, and digestive issues. I had vertigo so bad one day, I couldn't function. I felt grateful for the work and quick cash, but that allowed time for nothing else, especially the band. The great thing about contract work is that it allows for breaks, which I got.
Thinking I'd broken my thumb, I landed back at the ER on the same day the "Baby Blues" single dropped this past October, the day before our single release show at Hotel Vegas. Suddenly, my opposable digit swelled into immobility. Turns out it wasn't broken or sprained, but likely the result of degenerative autoimmunity.
Having been instructed not to play guitar for a month, I found a pinch shredder for the show. We've since brought back a key player from the original lineup, Rosie Castoe, to help out on guitar. My hand still isn't the same, but having two guitars now not only helps with that, it also sounds so dang good.
Weird how the universe works sometimes, because with Rosie, we sound better than ever. Cara Tillman, Jody Suarez, and Jordan Rivell have been in the band a couple years now, and we've folded in Phil McJunkins from our country band to add a dreamy Texas twist to the boot-gaze. This lineup might never have happened had it not been for all my life changes.
If not for all the record delays, we also wouldn't have roped in Matthew Caws of Nada Surf, who sent in vocal tracks for "In Tune" at the very last minute while he completed his band's Let Go anniversary tour. Also on said tour: our engineer/producer Louie Lino of Resonate in Austin, where both Moving Panoramas discs were cut. With him on the road, we continued mixing at Good Danny's in Lockhart with Danny Reisch, who helped bring In Two to a new level.
Another thing my mother always said was that good things sometimes come out of the bad. That which doesn't kill us only makes us stronger, right? While some things make that towel seem easier to throw in, I'm extremely grateful for everything – good and bad – and it's easy to lose sight of that sometimes.
Besides, my mama didn't raise no quitter.
KUTX presents Moving Panoramas’ album release at Barracuda on Friday, Feb. 22, with Midcentury and Mean Jolene.