Published Jan 19, 2009At just 23, Toronto singer-songwriter Jerry Leger has already earned the admiration of some illustrious senior peers. Ron Sexsmith played piano on Leger's sophomore disc, Farewell Ghost Town, and calls him "one of the best songwriters I've heard in quite some time," while Josh Finlayson of the Skydiggers was impressed enough to co-produce this album (with Sexsmith guitarist Tim Bovaconti). The result is certainly strong enough to vindicate their support. Leger has one of those openhearted and unaffected voices that you instantly trust. He names Hank Williams and Bob Dylan as his key influences, while Steve Forbert is another possible reference point. His songs sound more Bob than Hank, leaning more to the folk than country side, though Hank would surely approve of "Half Asleep And Drunk." The two co-producers add fluent guitar, mandolin and banjo but the sparse sound is primarily built around Leger's acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica work. This proves a suitable setting for songs rich with poetic imagery and character-driven stories like "Mansion Round The Bend" and "Daddy's Lantern." There's a sweet tenderness to "Drive Away Tonight" and an appealing sense of mischief to "My Little Crook," while the nomadic and restless feel of many of the songs is reflected in the album title. Clearly he is an artist to watch.
There's a very sparse sound to the record. Was that your original intention?
When I initially met with Josh Finlayson about doing a record, he said, "We should do a record that is very stripped down and acoustic." I had the same idea in mind. I was reconnecting with the first few Gordon Lightfoot albums and I just loved how it had that full yet sparse sound, so we were already on the same page going in. Tim Bovaconti co-produced and he can adapt to anything."
Josh does a lot of co-writing. Had you thought of doing that with him?
He broached the subject early on and we did just write a song together that I like. Maybe we'll sell it to somebody. Tim McGraw might be sniffing for a new hit! There could be more on the way. He's a great writer but I think I'm still figuring out my own story though.
How would you compare this to the previous two albums?
This one has a little more storytelling; it's more in that folk tradition. I often sat down and had a story in my head, or at least the beginning of a story. They don't always need a resolution. The story songs are the ones you can work on for a bit. You can go back and edit, while those personal ones that throw in your own feelings are best when they all come out at once.
I hear you had your first tour in the U.S, recently.
We did the States in October, in the South. We got an invitation from the guy who mastered this record and the previous one, Jeff Carroll. He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he said, "You should come down here. People will love you." And, yes, Raleigh's a fun place to play. I asked around and Ron Sexsmith gave me some names in Nashville. We played a place called the Basement, a cool place that's good for indie acts and songwriters not doing that kind of country. That was great, with lots of people, but the second gig in Nashville was at a club that was closing down in a week. There were five very supportive people there.
Did you come into the recording of You, Me And The Horse with fully finished songs?
It was pretty much set. I'd done demos of about 20 songs at Josh's a few weeks before we went in. Some things change when you start playing around with them. You may cut out an extra chorus. There were one or two situations where Josh and Tim had input. Nobody was afraid to say, "That's not going to work." We did it in a few days, with mainly the three of us playing out lines for a lot of the songs. We did a lot of the basic tracks at Phil Presnal's house then took it to the Rogue to make it sound all nice.
Is folk what you grew up listening to and wanting to emulate?
Very much so. It was the music I listened to inside the family home. I never thought of it as being a different generation's music. I always connected with it. Those are the building blocks for anything - the stuff you grew up with.
Never had a punk rock phase?
No, no. A lot of the guys have been constant since I was a young kid: Hank Williams, George Jones. I got a George tape when I was six, The Race Is On, I believe.
To me, this does veer more to folk than country.
It does. I listen to more folk, like Dylan and Lightfoot. Those two guys were definitely big influences, and Neil Young. In high school, I'd skip class, go to the library and break apart Dylan lyrics. Rip them off! I love country too. I take from both but Dylan was definitely a big influence. I found out from reading Chronicles that he was a big Hank fan too. That was cool.
Did you start with open mic nights around Toronto?
I've always lived in the East End. There's a coffee shop there, Grabba Java. At 15 I had this huge urge to play in front of people. They had an open mic kind of thing. It was supposed to be an open mic but it was the same two guys all the time. I went there with a few school chums, played a few songs and went from there - started sneaking into the bars. The open stage nights are a good way to start if you're trying to see how people react. You don't have to be self-conscious.
Always do original songs?
At Grabba Java I did four songs. A couple of mine and Dylan's "Desolation Row," a weird choice, and another cover. After that I usually just did my own stuff because I wanted to get people's reactions. I didn't care how they reacted to me doing someone else's song. It was a little touch and go at the start. I've always had that drive and ambition but there are always bumps in the road. It's getting better though.
Ever study music academically?
No. I had music class in high school but it was awful. I sucked at it. I played the alto-sax and couldn't get the breathing right. We should have recorded that! [There's] an audience for everything.
Was it guitar you started on?
Yes, acoustic guitar. My sister in law dropped one off for my older brothers. They wanted to start a band. They had electric guitars but wanted acoustic too. When they weren't around I'd grab it, steal their guitar books and put some chords together. That was at nine or ten, and then there was a piano in the high school auditorium. I'd stay there every day after school and just practice.
And you talked Ron Sexsmith into playing piano on the second album, 2006's Farewell Ghost Town .
He approached me at a show we were doing at C'est What right before we started doing that record. He asked if there was anything he could do on that record. We were doing it with Don Kerr. I said, "can you play some piano on it?" I'd heard him play piano on earlier songs like "Gold In Them Hills." There was an old, broken down piano at the studio and he plays great on it. He's a good guy.
How did you meet up with Don for that record?
Through Ron and Tim. I heard a few records he'd done, like Pete Elkas and the Sexsmith and Kerr record, and really liked his approach, that very dry sound. I applied for a FACTOR grant for that record. I didn't get it but on the application form I put him down as the producer before I'd even asked him! A fun record to make, that one.
Must be a confidence boost to have artists like that be so supportive of your work?
It does feel good. I have complete respect for those guys, and it's good to have friends like that to work with.
How has reaction to the new record been?
It has been getting good attention so far. We did Q for CBC Radio and got a lot of response from that. It sold a good amount of records and got a lot of emails too. College radio has just started playing a couple of the songs now.
Any ones they're zeroing in on?
"Drive Away Tonight" and "Mansion Round The Bend," the nice little love song.
A good Canadian reference on "Mansion," I see.
Yes, Sudbury. The girl I love is still there. That one is for her. One day we will reconnect.
Been out West yet?
That is definitely on the to do list. I'm hoping to connect with the Sadies and do some stuff with them. I want to go everywhere. Just give me a date and I'm there. I'll walk if I have to, take my bike! I'm eager.
You're into that image of the hobo, the troubadour? Some of these new songs suggest that.
We always have these images of ourselves in our minds. Whether it's a certain lifestyle, like the Tom Waits drunk on a barstool, though he's not one. There is something romantic about being a travelling musician, with a guitar on the back. The States thing was like that for us, really touch and go. There is something there where it feels like you're living. I like the troubadour image.
Sense that these songs could travel well?
Yes I do. Especially when we play with the band, all kinds of people come to our shows, young and old. I was very proud when in the States a couple of really elderly gentleman bought the record and were really excited. They gave us the stamp of approval, and that felt great. (Golden Rocket)