Young Americana: Andrew Leahey
As a member of Elizabeth Cook’s touring band, a journalist for Rolling Stone Country, and an artist in his own right, Andrew Leahey has lived and chronicled many sides of the industry. Each one has given him a better understanding of the direction he hopes to take his own music. After recovering from brain surgery a couple of years ago, his desire to tour was amplified, and he packed 175 tour dates into one year. The volume and intensity of those shows influenced his new record, which is expected in 2018.
You just put out a new album in the Fall?
The Fall of last year, yeah, so one year ago. It’s called Skyline in Central Time.
You’re planning on putting out a new album in 2018?
That would be ideal. I just recorded it, just got masters back. The plan is to shop around and find a good home for it and take the amount of time that that process deserves.
How does it differ or compare to the last album?
The last one was more Americana focused, and it was largely influenced by my recovery from brain surgery and this life threatening thing that I went through. At the point ,when I was writing the songs, that’s what I was going through. I was in the thick of recovery, and so most of my songs were about that. Then when I was promoting it, I was touring my ass off and getting back into the schedule I had before I got sick. So I played 175 gigs in 2016 and so most of the songs I wound up writing during that process were less about being sick, and more about rededicating myself to this crazy thing I do. So I think the music itself on the new album, it’s a much bigger sound and a more rockin’ sound and influenced by the live show.
I grew up listening to fm radio at a time when mainstream fm radio was really really great. I heard people like Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty, even U2 and John Mellencamp, just these great artists getting played on pop radio, and I don’t hear rock n roll being as big as that anymore. With this new album, I tried to go big and try to nod to those sounds I grew up with without completely aping them. It’s not a War on Drugs, 80s-ish thing, it’s not a current Ryan Adams, 80s-ish things, although I love those guys and love those albums, but it does take some cues from that era.
You’re still playing a lot...
Still playing a lot of shows, including sideman work and I love that. In the past 12 months, I’ve played as a member of Michaela Anne’s band, Jamie Kent’s band, Elizabeth Cook’s band, Jon Latham’s band, and probably a few other gigs I’m forgetting. The Elizabeth Cook gig is my newest of sideman jobs and I’m really liking it.
How is that?
It’s good. We got to play the Ryman at the Grand Ole Opry last weekend. I would love playing that with my own band, of course, but it’s the Ryman either way.
How does playing with someone else compare to doing your own music?
It’s two parts of the puzzle I think, and it helps me be a better frontman because I get to gain a larger perspective on what it means to be in a band and I get to look at how other people do it, how they invest in their bandmates, and how they lead their bandmates as well. As long as you don’t just sit in the backseat getting stoned, there’s a lot to be learned from touring with other peoples’ bands.
How does it work with you doing that many dates a year? What’s your end goal for your ideal amount of touring?
I think these days that an audience is grown, and how a business is made, is touring and playing shows and meeting fans that way. I think 175 shows a year is a little much. I think 100 is a great compromise. But it needs to be 100 good gigs and last year I was just throwing everything at the wall and seeing what stuck. There were some shows that were quite worthwhile and I could see it growing our business and there were some that required a 10 hour drive to Lubbock, TX to play in a barbecue place for ten people. So I could do without the playing to 10 people in Lubbock, and I could do more opening gigs and worthwhile shows that way. But it’s what I do. Playing live is never a chore. It’s the process of getting there that gets old sometimes.
Well I feel like playing to 10 people in a random town in Texas makes playing at the Ryman that much more special.
Yeah, it makes you rededicate yourself every night too. It would be really easy to quit and when you don’t it makes you that much stronger of a musician and gives you more fuel for the fire. Nothing lit a fire under my ass like getting sick and nearly not being able to continue touring. Once I got back on the road, I realized maybe I had been taking it for granted before and it made me better. That’s the silver lining to something like that. It can make you better once you’re healthier.
You write about other artists a lot [for Rolling Stone, and bio writing] - what is like to try and write objectively as a musician yourself?
I don’t know many music journalists who are musicians as well. I know a couple but it’s not the majority of us. I think when I talk with musicians, I can ask questions that they don’t often get asked. I can make sure that the tone of the conversation is more musical and less tabloidy and less lifestyle focused. I think I can get better answers from them because I know questions that other people wouldn’t be able to ask. I can get kinda on the inside of their music because I know what it’s like. I think being a musician makes me a better journalist, I don’t know if being a journalist makes me a better musician but it definitely works the one way.
You’re definitely exposed to more new things - it’s part of your job.
Sure, and the one challenge is at the end of the evening when I grab my guitar it can be hard to write lyrics because I’ve spent all day searching my brain for the right adjective to describe this guy’s guitar playing or something and I’m all out of words. I’ve almost drained that tank in myself or something. I do find that I write the best when I’m touring, not working 60 hours a week on journalism stuff, but working 80 hours a week on music and I’m completely in that mindset.
What do you do if you can’t think of any words?
I just noodle on guitar licks for like three hours.