Interview: Dylan LeBlanc

At 23, after abandoning a major label deal in the wake of two records, Dylan LeBlanc found himself back in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where he began re-evaluating his songwriting process. His approach to the practice became more intentional, more focused on a deliberate outcome that appropriately reflected his emotional state of mind. The resulting record from that period of renewal, Cautionary Tale, is a precise statement, the visceral result of an artist maturing and coming into his own as a songwriter. Prior to his show in Macon, we talked about the songwriting process, the production of Cautionary Tale and a perfect cure for the wintertime blues.

First, tell me about tell me about your new record, Cautionary Tale. I’d be interested to know about the players on it and the production of it. Everything seems to sit in its right place. I especially like the drums and bass. Did you have a specific sound in mind when you were getting a group together, or was it just a product of everyone involved in the process?

No, I definitely had a plan. Me and John John Paul White and Ben Tanner produced the record, and I definitely wanted it to sound aesthetically kind of older, like a record from the 70s or late 60s. I love that era of music, and I love the way records sounded back then. So we got together and talked about it, and I got Zack Cockrell from the Alabama Shakes – I think his bass tone is great. I think he really has that retro base tone, so I wanted him to play on this record. Then I got my friend Jeremy Gibson from Louisiana who is a ragtime drummer – kind of like a jazz drummer but a really good rock drummer. I kind of handpicked people who I loved, and I got a string section to play on it – that was fun. We cut all analog and had a 16-track Studer board, didn’t have a lot of gear to work with, which made it even more fun and interesting, just because we had to play the songs well, or it wasn’t going to sound good. It was definitely something new for me.

I read that you moved back to Muscle Shoals to write the record and record it. What influence that decision?

Well… honestly, this girl that I was seeing. She was living there because her sister lived there, and when I went back up there to spend time with her, and we ended up getting a house together and moving in together. Then I just stayed because she was there. Ended up living there for four more years and then writing more songs. I’ve always made my records there. I’ve never made a record anywhere else, so it just feels like home to me as far as recording goes. Also, I didn’t have the money to go into a studio anywhere else. My friends John Paul [White] and Ben [Tanner] helped me out because they had just built a new studio, and they let me cut the record there.

You have deep roots in [Muscle Shoals] through your father, right? How does that influence where you are now as a songwriter?

My father was always such a direct songwriter. He always had a clear message in writing. I grew up around country, and I think a lot of country songwriters do that – they write clearly about something. You know exactly what they’re saying when they’re singing. When they write the song you know exactly what it’s about. Growing up, I listened to a lot of country music, and I lived out in the country. It influenced me that way just because I was surrounded by it all the time. My father always said, “tell the story, tell the story. Write about what you know.” That definitely influenced me.

Continuing on songwriting, one quote from your bio stood out to me. You say, “I don’t rely on inspiration anymore.” I think that’s extremely wise, but there’s also this stereotypical notion of the songwriter as a hopeless romantic and a slave to flashes of blinding brilliance. How do you negotiate the extremes of inspiration and just sitting down to white knuckle it? Has does that process even itself out?

I feel like you can’t always wait on inspiration. I definitely have moments of it, but they never are at the time I need it to happen. I’m always on the road or doing something else where I can’t sit down and write a song [laughs]. I think inspiration comes when you pull it out of yourself. It’s a practice like anything else. Doctors practice medicine and lawyers practice law. Songwriters practice songwriting. If you’re a writer, you write whether you feel like writing or not… you can’t really wait on that inspiration to come, but it will come eventually if you keep doing it. Sometimes I think I’m most proud of the songs where I wasn’t inspired. You can look through the material almost like another person and go, “hmm, I can probably tighten that line up there, make that line a little better.” I feel like when you’re inspired, you think everything you’re doing is great.

Makes sense. Changing the subject, Muscle Shoals and Macon are seemingly similar cities – Macon struggles to get a music scene up and going despite all its past and the weight of that. It struggles to overcome it. I’d be interested to hear what the scene is like in Muscle Shoals – is it a healthy music scene? Are there a lot of people playing music together there?

I think it is definitely a healthy music scene. There’s a lot of bands that come out and they are really good. There’s a lot of creative people there. There are records being made there all the time. So there’s constantly – musically and creatively – something happening all the time. It’s a small town so there’s not exactly tons of [stuff] happening all the time to go do, but I do think there’s a lot of people making music and creating art constantly and there’s just a definite creative energy in the air. It’s a place where it’s easy for people to affordably make records and do what they love to do. The rent is super cheap. It’s not a town like Austin or Nashville where you gotta work 16 hours a day or 80 hours a week to make the rent and and then don’t have time to make music.

It does seem like a lot of folks from northern Alabama are making that move to Nashville. Do you think that’s a necessary next step or do you think staying in one place like Muscle Shoals is sufficient enough to make it?

I definitely think you have to go to other places, but I don’t think you necessarily have to live other places. Muscle Shoals is only two and half hours from Nashville. My dad drives that four times a week to come write songs in Nashville. It just depends on what’s comfortable for you. I don’t know if it’s a necessary step to move to Nashville if you live in northern Alabama, but I do think it’s necessary to [go to] Nashville to meet people and make relationships and stuff like that. I think that’s necessary to respect what Nashville is and what it does.

On a related note, you get billed as Southern songwriter, whether that applies or not. Music is so accessible everywhere. Do you think a sense of place comes through in the songs that you write? Do you think there’s something inherently southern about the music you create, or is that just a romantic notion these days?

I think it’s a romantic notion. I’ve never been big on North vs. South and stuff like that. I do think there’s things about the South that I absolutely love – like food… the lifestyle is a little slower paced. I live in south Louisiana – people dance, and they go out dancing still. Nobody is looking at their phone all the time. I feel like there’s still a sense of connectedness down here that maybe you couldn’t get in a bigger city like New York or Detroit or L.A. or somewhere like that. People care about each other and I feel like they take care of each other and they look out for each other more. But I’ve only ever lived in the South, so I don’t have anything to base that off of. I’m comfortable living what I like. I’ve been on a lot of places in the world and all over the country, but every time I come home I feel good. I feel like the songs that I write – getting back to question – I can’t help but be influenced by where I’m from in what I write about and what I do and the things I’m interested in.

Yeah. Tell me about the band that’s coming through Macon for this tour. Who are you playing with, and what’s the difference between the record and the live show? Or is there a difference?

The band is really great. It’s two electric guitars, a cello, keyboard player, bass and drums. It’s definitely more of a rock ‘n’ roll and soulful thing. I think it’s good for the wintertime. People need to get up and go have fun, cut loose a bit, especially during the holidays. It’s kind of a depressing time. It is for me anyways [laughs]. I can’t speak for everyone. It’s getting dark early, you put a little too much rum in your eggnog, I don’t know… [laughs]

Well, we’re definitely looking forward to it.

Dylan LeBlanc plays the Hummingbird Stage and Taproom on Friday, December 9th. Check out our Bragg Jam Field Session with Dylan LeBlanc below.