Where: Straz Center, Jaeb Theater, 1010 N. MacInnes Place, Tampa
Tickets: $23; (813) 229-7827 and www.strazcenter.org
It all started with a ukulele. Bassist Austin Nicholsen pulled one out while jamming with vocalist Shirli McAllen six years ago in her Los Angeles home.
“I thought it was a toy,” McAllen said while calling from upstate New York. “I didn't know much about the ukulele. But Austin kept strumming it and I realized how cool that it is. We wrote a song on it.”
They went on to work on separate projects, but one day McAllen happened upon their song. “Two years after we did that, I was checking out music on my computer, and I played what we did, and I thought there was something special about that song.”
That was the start of Leftover Cuties, a band that formed in 2009 and melds elements of jazz, rock and pop.
“I like to call it pop noir,” McAllen said. “What we do is dark but catchy.”
The band, which will perform Friday at the Jaeb Theater, often has been compared to the retro Squirrel Nut Zippers, who helped revitalize swing briefly during the mid-'90s. “I completely get why people compare us to Squirrel Nut Zippers, who are amazing,” McAllen said. “We're super vintage sounding like they are, but we do add some modern touches. We're an alternative just like Squirrel Nut Zippers.”
McAllen, who is an Israeli and relocated to Los Angeles 12 years ago, has an ethereal voice, which recalls Billie Holiday. “That's too kind of a compliment,” McAllen said. “I get Amy Winehouse and Madeleine Peyroux but being mentioned along with Billie Holiday is too much.”
The humble, charismatic vocalist also has been compared with Regina Spektor, who she admires. Leftover Cuties rendered Spektor's “Fidelity” for its “Departures” EP, which dropped in 2012.
“The cool thing about that was that we asked fans via Facebook what we should cover and they suggested 'Fidelity,' McAllen said. “It worked. I love Regina Spektor. We try to make our covers very different from the original version. 'Fidellty' worked out well. I was worried about doing a Bob Dylan song ('Don't Think Twice, It's Alright.') since I love him so much. But it turned out fine. It's one of my favorite songs on that EP. And then there's the Lady Gaga song.”
A version of Lady Gaga's 'Pokerface' stands out. Leftover Cuties turned the pop song inside-out. “When someone suggested that we do 'Pokerface,' I laughed,” McAllen said. “I didn't think that would work at all. But after I read the lyrics, it made sense to me. I gained a lot of respect for Lady Gaga as a writer and as a singer.”
Leftover Cuties, which also includes keyboardist Mike Bolger and drummer Stuart Johnson, is touring behind “The Spark and Fire,” which dropped three weeks ago. The disc is composed of diverse and catchy originals. The band easily moves from jazz to pop to swing. “We wanted to take another step with this album,” McAllen said. “We're showing a new side.”
The band, which wrote and recorded the theme for the Showtime hit series “The Big C,” hopes to continue morphing. “We just want to grow,” McAllen said. “Everything has come to us in an organic fashion. We don't pay attention to what anyone else is doing. We do our own thing. We try to never repeat ourselves. We just want to make the most original, inspiring music that we can.”