“It’s the rough edges that stand out, not the smooth surfaces”

Singer/songwriter Andrew Leahey (who fronts the Americana band Andrew Leahey & the Homestead) will play a solo show in Asheville at The Lab on Wednesday, Sept. 12. (Jessica Campbell and Heather Morgan also perform. 9 p.m., $6.)

According to his bio, Leahey trained at Julliard and started out as a vocalist, before ditching his career in classical music to focus on songwriting. He’s currently based in Nashville. Just about this time last year, Leahey and his band released their self-titled debut. Xpress spoke to Leahey while he was in Athens, Ga. working on a new EP with producer/engineer David Barbe (who’s produced nearly every Drive-By Truckers album.)

Mountain Xpress: Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re working on with David Barbe, and how you connected with him?
Andrew Leahey: We funded most of the recording process with a Kickstarter campaign, recorded the songs at my friend’s house earlier this year, and convinced one of our heroes, David Barbe, to mix them. He’s done a lot of work with bands that helped shape our own sound — Drive-By Truckers, REM, Son Volt — so it’s been nice to bring him into the fold. I met him at a bar in Nashville, where we talked about the Truckers and Patterson Hood’s new solo album, and you could immediately tell how much he enjoyed his job. He’s a big music fan, like us.

MX: You have a great line in your Facebook bio, about being at Juilliard where “all the conductors seemed to think Sebastian Bach was Johann’s younger brother.” Having kind of been in both worlds now, who would you rather be in a band with — Sebastian or Johann?
AH: Ha! I’ve never thought about that. Johann has certainly aged better… and since Sebastian has a better voice than I do, he would probably put me out of a job. I’ll take Johann instead, assuming he’s willing to play the tambourine or something.

MX: Does your classical training apply to what you do now, with the Homestead? Or is it something that you have to overcome at times?
AH: Classical music taught me a lot of about composition, and even more about vocal harmonies. Most of the guys in the band can sing, so harmonies have become a big part of our sound. That being said, it took me years to stop singing like a choir boy. When you’re performing with a choir, you’re supposed to smooth out the blemishes in your voice. You’re supposed to blend with your neighbor. Singing with a band is different. A little grit is good, and there’s less focus on sounding perfect, because you tend to lose personality — or “vibe” — when something is perfectly polished. It’s the rough edges that stand out, not the smooth surfaces.

MX: The song “Heart Off My Hands” starts with an old scratchy record player sound, and the song itself is kind of honky-tonk. Do you have a sense of nostalgia for the Americana of bygone eras? Is there an era you’d like to go back to?
AH: I’m a big fan of the 1950s, back when rock ‘n roll and country were still close cousins. That’s the era I was trying to evoke with “Heart Off My Hands” — the era of baby boomers and Hank Williams and Grand Ole Opry telecasts on black and white TVs — but I do think it’s a little dangerous to spend your time pining for a bygone genre of music. No one is going to write a better Hank Williams song than Hank Williams. No one is going to going to record a better Byrds album than The Byrds. To me, “Heart Off My Hands” represents one extreme of our sound. I love the mid-century country feel of that song, but in general, the Homestead tries to look forward, not backward.

MX: Your album seems to be based in stories, if not story-telling, per se. Was there one particular story that inspired the album, or did you have a concept in mind throughout?
AH: I was living in Michigan when I wrote those songs. It was cold, it was grey, and a lot of my friends were hundreds of miles away. Most of the album deals with distance, but I tried to approach that theme in different ways. I was reading a lot of books about criminals in the 1920s and ‘30s at the time — I blame “Boardwalk Empire” — so I turned “Dillinger’s Letter” into a love song from John Dillinger to his girlfriend, and I turned “Penitentiary Guys” into a song about Bonnie and Clyde, sung from the perspective of Bonnie’s estranged husband.

Listen to “Penitentiary Guys” here:


MX: You’re both a musician and a music journalist. Do the two sides of the music coin give you insight into each other? Do you get useful ideas (or, perhaps, warnings) from talking to other musicians?
AH: Being a musician has definitely made me a better music journalist. I’m not sure if the reverse is true, but the jobs are related. I’ve been able to speak with some of my idols, and a musician can learn a lot from those bands if he asks the right questions.

MX: Your Asheville show will be solo. How do you translate the band sound into a one-man act?
AH: To me, a good song should be able to stand on its own, stripped free of all the guitar solos and background harmonies and cymbal crashes. Every Homestead song was written on an acoustic guitar, with no one else in the room besides me. When you force yourself to write that way, you sort of boil down a song to its basic ingredients, and you make sure that a strong melody and good chord progression are the main parts of its DNA. Andrew Leahey & the Homestead is a band, not one songwriter with a bunch of backup musicians, but I do a lot of solo shows when the other guys can’t make it. The songs hold up.

About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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