Published Jan 24, 2011This is the fourth album from hardworking Toronto, ON troubadour Jerry Leger, and it deserves to bring him wider recognition. He has flown a little under the Canadian roots scene radar, but has earned the respect of such peers as Ron Sexsmith, Fred Eaglesmith and Jim Lauderdale. The fact that he's made an impact in Nashville and the South is revealing, likely attributable to his "old school" approach to songwriting. Not many young songsmiths can use a '60s word like "babe" convincingly, but Leger can. His expressive vocals are always front and centre, though he's more than ably accompanied by a fine band, including guitarist/album producer Tim Bovaconti (Sexsmith) and fiddler/multi-instrumentalist James McKie. Leger's lyrics are imaginative, fusing folk and country elements seamlessly. There's nice diversity to the tempos and tones. "Dreamer, Pretender," the title track, and "Is He Treating You Good?" are primarily solo and acoustic, while "Whistling That Lonesome Tune" is built upon melancholy piano. By contrast, there's a robust full band feel to "Truth is All Around You" and "John Lewis." At 25, Leger clearly has a bright future ahead of him.
There's a warm, relaxed sound to the album. Was this an easy one to make?
It is the most spontaneous record since my first one, which was done in two days. When I got back from touring out East last July, I just had this bug: "I need to make a record." Initially, I wanted to make a full band record with lots of energy, like we do live. On the other hand, I had all these other songs written that I really loved. It was much easier to just go into Tim Bovaconti's studio and knock this album out. The band are on half and the other half is me with tickles of other instruments. Everything happened really quickly and there weren't really even any demo sessions. "Truth is All Around You" was written at four a.m. the night before the sessions. You can hear that everybody is just finding that song at that moment.
Any theory about the warm response in the South?
I'm in no way knocking Toronto or Canada, but it feels that I don't need any gimmicks down there. In the States, they're very curious about where the songs come from ― my music doesn't have any gimmicks and I can't make up any. To me, music scenes are kind of weird ― some of the best songwriters always felt on the outside; I always did, even when I was starting in folk clubs at 17. I'd just go there to play my songs and see what happened. I had no desire to be accepted in any circle. I'm excited that some kid will discover what I'm doing then find out I have six albums. I feel I'm building a story.
Are you pleased with the initial reaction to the record?
It's a little too early, in terms of reviews. I gave Ron Sexsmith an advance copy and the first thing he said to me was, "I think this is the best record you've made." People have said it's the best I've ever sounded, vocally. I'm like, 'Okay, sure.' It felt good, but I never thought, "I'm singing or writing better than ever." At this point, I feel I made a good record, but getting validation from people I respect is great. You never quite know what people will make of it, but you can't really care about that kind of thing.
To me, the album has a warm and relaxed sound. Were the sessions enjoyable?
That'd make sense. It's the most spontaneous record since my first one, which was done in two days. This one rather came about from when we were touring out east most of July . When I got back, I just had this bug: I need to make a record. Initially, I wanted to make a full band record with lots of energy, like we do live. But to record a full band album a lot more has to go into it, and a huge budget, if you want to do it properly. On the other hand, I had all these other songs written that I really loved. I had in my mind putting two records out, but that's a rather stupid idea these days. For this one, it was much easier to just go into Tim Bovaconti's studio and knock this album out. The band are on half the album and the other half is me with tickles of other instruments. The band didn't even know about these other songs. Everything happened really quickly. The past couple of records were more thought out. There weren't really even any demo sessions for this album. One song was written at four a.m. the night before the sessions. After a show at the Cameron, I got home and had this idea in my head. It's the first song on the album, "Truth is All Around You." You can hear that everybody is just finding that song at that moment; I like that about it. "John Lewis" is the only song that had been in our set for a year or so, and that's the biggest band arrangement on the album. I think it's a great little record, but I'm already itching to do another one. That is just how I am: constantly writing and wanting to lose money. I think this is a good progression from the last record and to the full band record we will eventually make.
You've worked a lot with Tim before. Did that make it easier this time?
He's great; we've worked together on all my records. He adapts very well. Every time I make a record it's a little bit different. The first record was pretty energetic, like Dylan with a little Clash almost. The second was leaning more towards adding those country influences, then You, Me and the Horse is an acoustic record. He has adapted well to all those scenarios. I see no point in not working with him on anything. Certain artists have producers like that. I'm sure I won't make every album with him, but there'd have to be some reason not to.
He's such a good player too. Would you suggest he play on certain tracks?
Yes I would. With this record there are a few songs where I had certain ideas, like on one song where Tim, not my drummer Kyle, plays percussion. He also played piano on "Wrong Kind of Girl." It was actually the first time he'd played piano in front of an audience when we did that song at our Hugh's Room release show recently. He did a great job; I'm really happy with how everybody played. My drummer, Kyle, has been with me since the beginning [in] 2004. The other guys, it was from the last record.
Do the songs suggest their instrumental setting as you write them?
Whenever I write, I never have it in mind whether it should be acoustic or for the band, I just write them. For the most part, I try them all with the band. With these songs, they were just there; I never really played them live even. I always feel my songs are adaptable. I feel like all these songs could be played by the band. I like the two different worlds: that someone could listen to this record and hear songs a little more in their natural state, then come and see us live and go, "Oh, there are colours in it." That excites me ― changing things up ― even if that can piss some people off. I even like screwing up songs. That's exciting.
Were most of these songs written in quite a short period?
Yes, they were. Only two are a year or more old. A couple were written on the road as we were out East last summer, scribbled in the car or at the motel. "Wrong Kind of Girl" was written like that. It starts off as that sort of classic '50s, "make that girl mine" [song] then it turns out that it's not going to work out, but that's okay 'cause she's actually wrong for this world.
You're known as a prolific writer. Do you try to write every day?
Yes, I like to keep active. I remember Ron Sexsmith saying once that he tries to write every day. I think it's great to do that ― not to force it, but to have something on hand. As a creative person, a writer, you always have these lines floating around. Obviously it is not always good, but I think it's a good idea to keep writing. I'm still young, but I've never had writer's block. I feel that is a good way to keep it off. If your mind is constantly active, there's always going to be something. I hope I don't have to deal with it. Woody Allen has never had writer's block, but it's not always good. Or Neil Young. Still, I can't wait to make a really bad record; I'm excited to do that. Like Dylan and Knocked Out Loaded, though it has "Brownsville Girl" on it, and that's a great song. With Dylan and Lennon, I really respect their not-so-great albums. The first album I bought with my own money was when I was eight, growing up in Lindsay, Ontario, and I bought Mind Games. I can't wait to make one of those indifferent albums. It can be fun to see how much someone dislikes something and why.
This is your fourth album. Your first came out in 2005, right? That's quite prolific.
I'd have had more, but I didn't have enough money. I'd have had an album out every year if I could. There were albums in 2005 and 2006, '07 was a weird year for me, then 2008. I already have a backlog even though I'm a beginner, in some ways. The Beatles did two a year; I'd love to have another album out in 2011. This will be out on vinyl in the spring, and that's exciting.
You've been well received at gigs in the States, especially the South. Any theory on why?
[I'm] in no way knocking Toronto or Canada, but it feels that I don't need any gimmicks down there. For decades, people have grabbed your attention through a hype machine and it has paid off, but my music doesn't have any gimmicks, and I can't make up any. To me, music scenes are kind of weird. Some of the best songwriters always felt on the outside. I always did, even when I was starting in folk clubs at 17; I felt outside of that clique. I'd just go there to play my songs and see what happened. I had no desire to be accepted in any circle. I feel that going to the States, the musicians I've met down there, it's kind of the same thing. In the long run, I think it's exciting 'cause there might be a kid who discovers what I'm doing and then finds out, "Oh, he's got six albums." I always loved discovering artists then finding they'd been building a story. I feel I'm building a story; I don't mind the hard work. So, yes, I like the States. They have had open arms; they're very curious about where the songs come from. I just feel a lot of warmth down there. I'm going back to the States next month. This time, it'll be a little more financially rewarding, as it's our third trip down; I got guarantees, stuff like that. There's been warmth in Canada as well and I'm sure there are other parts of Canada I haven't been to where I may have big fans and I just don't know it. That's one of the exciting things about touring. I also love that people who are big fans, who come and see us and send emails, some have been with us since the beginning. I don't write songs that are somehow of the moment or for a particular person. I think they're songs you can grow old with. They're not directed at a certain demographic.
I gather appearing on the live Music City Roots show at famed WSM Radio in Nashville last year was a big thrill?
Yes, it was amazing ― just seeing all the photos on the wall was crazy. Of course, you see the poster boy: Hank Williams. It was a lot of fun too and I'll be doing that again soon. The host, Jim Lauderdale [a noted Americana artist], was super-nice, a great guy. He gave me a record and signed it, saying I was a great writer. He didn't have to say that. He made us feel really at home. It's a big show, and here I am, this young guy from Toronto. Lots of those big Nashville staff writers were there and they really liked what I was doing. It's a different side to the way they write. The show is filmed too, so you can see it on YouTube.
I heard something about the film footage being lost in the Nashville flood.
Yes, a lot of it got destroyed. I got the audio recording of the interview and songs, but the film was lost.
And you played in Knoxville?
Yes, a concert show called Blue Plate Special. It was cool. They have plates all over the studio walls. Fred Eaglesmith was on there, lots of bluegrass artists. But they stopped making the plates as they ran out of space. I didn't get a plate, so I was sad about that. I'm excited to see how they react to this record, but I'm also excited to see how Canada reacts when we go out. I know it's a good record. There's nothing crazy about it; it's a bunch of songs that I think are great ― no crazy science behind it.
Are you hopeful of playing lots of festivals this summer?
I know we're doing the Dauphin country fest in Manitoba. We'll do the Eaglesmith picnic again; it was great fun last year, a really comfortable festival, everybody just wanted to hang out. After the music, we still played in our tent area. I had a blast. Other festivals say we are on their shortlist.
Are you open to the idea of others covering your songs?
For sure, I'd love that. I've just started playing with the idea of getting a publisher on board. These are worlds I'm not really familiar with, and that world has changed a lot. Now, it seems everybody wants to write, even if they shouldn't. I definitely feel these records could make their mouth water, but who knows. (Independent)