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Pen Pal Pop

Twenty-one-year-old South Florida singer/songwriter Isaac Lekach, the one-man band known as Poulain, would seem to be a solitary sort, spending lonely hours composing his delicate, cleverly arranged songs. Yet it's collaboration with contemporaries around the nation that has breathed life into his stylish tunes (glistening wet with Belle and Sebastian teardrops and Herman's Hermits honey), which are finally being aired outside the state's borders. In fact, during Lekach's rather short and underground career, he's already hooked up with two notable indie producers eager to record his work.

Last winter, Lekach flew to Chicago for an intense four-day session with Chris Holmes, leader of the chamber pop conglomerate Yum-Yum. Lekach, a film student at the University of Miami, met Holmes two years ago during the production of an independent film in Los Angeles. Holmes had signed on to create a score. The film never took off, but the two became musically acquainted. "We went to see some shows there and just bonded, I guess," explains the soft-spoken Lekach, a skinny guy of Russian/Cuban descent with big eyes, dusty brown hair, and a bad habit of slumping his shoulders.

Lekach didn't contact Holmes again until December 2001, when he found himself taking a break from school and immersing himself in songwriting for the first time since high school. "I was just sitting in my room," Lekach recalls, "and I wanted to record these songs, so I called him up." Lekach mailed off a demo of eight songs; Holmes chose four and invited his pen pal to Chicago, where the two spent a day producing each track at Holmes's home recording studio. "We didn't ever leave his house," Lekach says.

Just two months ago, Lekach released the four songs on an EP titled With Fingers Crossed on his own imprint, Soft Serve Records. With a core of acoustic guitar and a handle disguising Lekach's singular status, Poulain would seem to invite comparisons to fellow South Floridian Chris Carrabba (Dashboard Confessional). With Fingers Crossed, however, is full of enticingly orchestrated narratives with great melodies, rather than Carrabba's heavily cloaked hardcore. Erin Gipson's high, wispy backup vocals add an aura of vulnerability to the childlike whimsy of "Red Rover" and "Hollywood," which wears its innocence like a security blanket: "I go over the river and through the woods, down to your house in Hollywood... and it feels like home."

Lekach took the songs on tour when he traveled recently with esteemed local popsters Rocking Horse Winner, warming up the audience before their shows. His intimate, intense solo set often included an almost sepulchral reworking of the Magnetic Fields' "Busby Berkeley Dreams." Some nights, they played to more than 200 people, and it wasn't just the Rocking Horse Winner winning over new fans. "It was amazing," Lekach raves about the month-long adventure. "It was my first tour. I went with few expectations because I didn't want to let myself down. I didn't even expect to sell a lot of CDs, but I sold anywhere from five to eight a night. People were really into it. Wherever we played, there was always someone who came up after the show and said, 'Thank you.'"

At the end of the journey, Lekach stopped in Athens, Georgia, where he'd made arrangements to stay with Andy LeMaster, key singer/songwriter of the alt-rock outfit Now It's Overhead, also known for his work with Omaha's Bright Eyes and Athens's Macha. They had met in Miami last February, when Lekach played his first solo show in the coveted opening slot before Now It's Overhead and Desaparecidos. "After the show," Lekach notes, "I e-mailed him, and I sent him a bunch of songs -- just like I did with Chris." LeMaster, he recalls, gave him exactly the same enthusiastic response Holmes had. "He said, 'Yeah! Come on up!'"

This time, Lekach spent two weeks in the studio and emerged with nine songs. The sessions with LeMaster, he recalls, were just as grueling as his work with Holmes. He even slept in the studio's attic, which had a bedroom and shower. "We worked 12 to 14 hours pretty much every day," Lekach says. "We'd work from 3 in the afternoon until the sun came up the next day. Those were Andy's hours."

For now, the material from those sessions remains secret. Lekach plans to shop the recordings around to record labels, hoping to ink a recording deal. But his real dream sees him expanding his live show from a solo acoustic performance to something much more ambitious. "I'd like to eventually have a huge band -- really, really big. Not Spiritualized big, but something like that, and just tour and play and record. That's further down the road, but I think it would be amazing, like Brian Wilson recently did with Pet Sounds. Maybe not as grand -- maybe just a violin, a viola, and a cello or something."

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Hans Morgenstern has contributed to Miami New Times for too many decades, but he's grown to love Miami's arts and culture scene because of it. He is the chair of the Florida Film Critics Circle, and most of his film criticism can be found on Independent Ethos ( if not in New Times.

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