If you’ve been to a major folk-rock concert in the past six years, chances are you’ve seen Dylan LeBlanc. The singer-songwriter has opened for Lucinda Williams, First Aid Kit, Patterson Hood, JJ Grey and Mofro, Lera Lynn and Lissie at all but a handful of Asheville’s top venues — though the one time he had top billing in town, the evening didn’t go quite as he’d anticipated.
“We played The Emerald Lounge in 2012, and nobody showed up. I mean literally nobody showed up,” LeBlanc says. “We still played a show, and we played our asses off, but it was literally only to the bartender. It was fun, though. We ended up having a good time.”
That experience and an overarching sense of responsibility have LeBlanc somewhat nervous about embarking on his first headlining tour, which brings him to The Mothlight on Thursday, Jan. 28. But based on the grand songwriting and sonic cohesiveness of his beautiful new record Cautionary Tale — an early candidate for Album of the Year — drawing a crowd shouldn’t be a problem.
A gifted guitarist with a soulful, haunting voice, LeBlanc makes his home in Florence, Ala., where he’s lived on and off for 15 years. In 2013, he was across the Tennessee River in Tuscumbia and lacking the motivation to write. He hadn’t put pen to paper for a year, but as 2014 approached, he started to get back into the process. Some songs took five hours, others three or four days and some a few weeks — a stark contrast to his 2010 debut Paupers Field. That album was recorded at the end of his teenage years when songs were pouring out of him at a rate of up to two per day, and inspiration was rampant. A subsequent taste of the music business’ shadier side coupled with critics scrutinizing LeBlanc’s lyrics blunted his passion but couldn’t completely snuff it out.
“That sort of took the magic away from why I was just doing it … and I lost a lot of inspiration because of that. So now I make it a point to get in touch with that period of time in my life where I really enjoyed the process, and I just do it for me. That helps me an awful lot,” LeBlanc says. “Not that it’s not work. It’s a craft or a practice. Like doctors practice medicine and lawyers practice law, you practice songwriting. There’s no right way or formula — you find your niche, stick to it, and maybe get a little bit better and hope you don’t digress.”
With a new batch of compositions ready for the studio, LeBlanc signed to Single Lock Records, the Florence-based label founded by John Paul White (formerly of The Civil Wars) and Ben Tanner (Alabama Shakes).
“It’s a very incestuous family — everybody sings and plays on each other’s records, and they keep it local. They really don’t put anything out that’s not [from] around this area,” LeBlanc says. “The Secret Sisters sang on my record and Brittany [Howard] and Zac [Cockrell, both of Alabama Shakes]. Just people I’ve made friends with along the way [whose talents I really appreciate]. There are certain little quirks and little things that they do that are almost signature that I knew I wanted on the record.”
LeBlanc has known White since the former’s preteen days when the latter wrote songs with LeBlanc’s father. In his midteens, LeBlanc met Tanner, who was working as a staff engineer at the legendary FAME Studios in neighboring Muscle Shoals. LeBlanc cut his first demos with Tanner, at which point he realized his friend played piano. He’s subsequently recruited Tanner to play on all of his albums. The mutual comfort and understanding among the three, and the opportunity to use White’s objective ear further convinced LeBlanc that the Single Lock crew was the best fit for Cautionary Tale, especially since he knew he didn’t want to produce the record himself.
“I wanted somebody else to take my songs and do something with them that’s sort of different,” LeBlanc says. “We work well together. It was mostly them saying ‘no’ to me. I wanted to bury all these songs in instrumentation and a lot of parts, and they were like, ‘You know, you really don’t need that. Just play your acoustic guitar and sing your song.’ It really brought a new perspective and a new light into what I do, and I really appreciate it. It was a really great trusting and learning experience.”
The idea to layer the songs with strings, however, was LeBlanc’s idea. A chance onstage collaboration with cellist Caleb Elliot at a Lafayette, La., show coincided with the writing of Cautionary Tale. It appealed to LeBlanc’s lifetime love of darker classical music and a fondness for epic soul records that combine orchestral parts with a Motown rhythm vibe, such as Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine.” Adapting this legacy to LeBlanc’s songs with Elliot, with violinist Kimi Samson, percussionist Jeremy Gibson and Cockrell on bass, White and Tanner channeled that rich sonic history in their own distinctive way. With a touring band featuring those four instruments next to LeBlanc’s acoustic and electric guitars, the fullness of the studio sound translates nicely to a live setting.
WHO: Dylan LeBlanc with Wayne Robbins
WHERE: The Mothlight, themothlight.com
WHEN: Thursday, Jan. 28, 9 p.m. $7