Jerry Leger Heart Songs
Published Apr 28, 2014Toronto-bred folk-rocker Jerry Leger can't stop, or won't. He's released seven records since 2004, each one better than the last, and he maintains a busy touring schedule in between. Writing, for him, is a daily gig; such a work ethic, combined with his apparently natural talent for penning compelling songs about heartache and loss (the bread and butter of the singer-songwriter set), has meant that Leger has become an unavoidable presence on the Canadian music scene. With Early Riser, his just-released seventh record, Leger has crafted his best and most irresistible musical statement to date. Lovingly produced by the Cowboy Junkies' Michael Timmins, Early Riser highlights Leger's impressive skill for song craft while maintaining a casual, off-the-floor tone throughout. Exclaim! spoke to Leger as he and his bassist Dan Mock drove through the Rocky Mountains between gigs.
This is your seventh record in under a decade. You write a hell of a lot of songs in such short order. Do you just keep an antenna up all the time?
I'm lucky. I haven't had writer's block. I've read about Woody Allen, that he writes all the time, for better or worse, and it kind of keeps your mind active. I guess that's sort of what it's like for me. It's not all great, what I write, but it keeps my mind fresh. I'm just constantly working that muscle.
It sounds a little like you're trying to stave off a fallow period. Are you writing out of an anxiety that one day you won't be able to write?
Sometimes when you write a really great song, you kind of wonder: "Is this ever going to happen again?" And, hopefully, something does come together [down the road]. But I don't go for like a week or two without being able to get anything out. I've never had that experience, of being blocked. Where I'm just stuck. But, I've been doing this a long time. This is how I learned to play guitar! I wrote. I didn't like practicing, so I just put chords together. Just to make it more fun for myself.
So, did you grow up writing your own stuff, or were you playing other people's material?
I was learning songs from records. I wasn't always playing the right chords, but I learned from being a heavy listener and figuring out songs that I liked. When you start writing your own stuff there's these templates there. So I'm sure — I haven't heard it in a long time — that there's old songs that sound like other people's songs!
What was it like working with [producer] Michael Timmins on this album? Were Cowboy Junkies a big influence on you, growing up?
I've always liked them. I definitely loved the sound of their records. I loved their approach, where they wanted to take their sound. And also the artists they love. I think that's the thing. Mike and I have a lot in common. We have the same respect for a lot of the same artists and songwriters. And Mike's a great songwriter himself. A great arranger, producer. And we wanted to make the same kind of record. But, no, they didn't have an influence on me as a writer. I dug what they did and enjoyed their records, but my main influences are people that are dead. Whether it's Hank Williams or Dylan or Lightnin' Hopkins or Buddy Holly or whatever. Those are the songs that speak to me, that I get something from. Makes me want to do the same thing, really.
I would imagine those artists to be among Timmins' biggest influences as well.
Yeah, I think he would [say that]. I've known him for a few years and we've almost worked together in the past. I think he recognizes right away that I have a certain style of writing, whether I'm making a more rock'n'roll record, or more stripped-down record, whatever fits my mood at the time, there's still a certain thread running through it, music-wise. I don't know what it is exactly. As far as musically, chord-wise, there are certain chords I like more than others that I naturally fall into. And lyrically, I like narrative tunes. A lot of imagery, heartache. I think he heard that right away and figured it made sense for us to work together. I met up with him and we discussed a few things and he said: "Well, why don't we make a record?"
There's a theme running through this album, a tension between strength and defenselessness. On "To Let Me Go," for instance, the chorus is all gospel uplift, but the song surrounding it is about insecurity in love.
Yeah you're right. After we did the record, and I listened to it, I kind of felt like… I felt like I became like this drunk sitting at the bar after last call that they've got to kick out. There's a hard edge to the tunes. For the next record, hopefully I'll be in a great mood. A sunshine record! There's a bit of a dark cloud over this one. But, it ends on a nice note. It ends with a salute to Buddy Holly, and drinking coffee in the morning [on "Early Riser"]. So, maybe that's where the next one comes in.
On "One More Bad Penny" (a song about a failed marriage) you sing: "The windows are open but the blinds are shut." Is this your view of love? A combination of vulnerability and security?
I don't want to be cynical when it comes to love. I'm kind of a romantic. But it's really complicated. I'm 28 now, and I've gone through this and that, being with different people. And seeing other people in love, and out of love and… I think with this record a lot of the love songs, or heart songs, are about the mistreatment of love. Not everybody's perfect. Not everybody lives happily ever after. There's that selfishness, that inconsideration. Nothing [like this was happening to me] personally, but this was just on my mind. This isn't my Blood on the Tracks, writing about all the shit I'm going through [laughs]. I've just become more conscious of how people work together, and how people don't work together.
This record is billed as "Jerry Leger", not "Jerry Leger and the Situation" like previous records. But your band the Situation plays on the album. Is this a statement about the record? Is it more of a personal album?
I just made that decision because we had other guests on the album that were adding a big enough colour and texture to it that it wasn't just a straight-ahead band record. The last album, we had a couple extra people on it, but it was still very live off the floor; the band, the way the band sounds. This time we had a backup vocalists on it [including Tamara Lindeman, aka the Weather Station], some organ and piano. Part of it was that. Although they're subtle, they're big enough textures that it made a difference. But it was also about making a good record that I could take on the road on my own. It's kind of confusing if it's billed as a band record when I'm touring all over the country by my lonesome.