Andrew Leahey on Facing Death, Channeling Petty and Chasing Idealism
There was a time when Andrew Leahey had a great view of the Nashville skyline from his doorstep. “We’ve got a baseball stadium in the way now and a giant four-story apartment complex,” he sighs. “It’s just constantly changing. Some changes are good, some are bad. It’s just the reality of Nashville these days.”
For many folks who’ve lived in Music City for at least half a decade, as Leahey has, the dizzying pace of commercial development is a frequent topic of conversation. But all that stuff is merely a backdrop for his perspective on change. In years past, the singer-songwriter might’ve opted for a cup of coffee, but today he’s nursing a kale smoothie instead. Caffeine is one of many things that he’s stopped fooling with. He did, after all, survive the removal of a brain tumor that could very well have taken his hearing, or his life. And Leahey spends much of his earnest, meticulously tuneful new album, Skyline in Central Time, marking the distance he’s come from frivolous, youthful attitudes and fixating on things of more lasting importance.
Those who know their U.S. time zones might recognize that his new album title also bears a passing resemblance to Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and Todd Snider’s East Nashville Skyline. That’s certainly no coincidence. In addition to leading his roots-rock outfit the Homestead, Leahey is also a music journalist, contributing to this publication and numerous others over the past decade, and along the way, learning the value of musical associations. It never hurts to subtly reference standard-setters of previous generations.
Following your diagnosis, you had months to ponder how the surgery might affect your life and your ability to make music. You channeled a sense of urgency into your song “When the Hinges Give.” How else did that urgency find its way into your musical life?
When I came out of the operation, it definitely did light a fire under my ass. This is our third release. The first two were very homemade. They were co-produced by me. I probably spend more on my mortgage payments than I spent on those albums. And the plan was always, “Why spend all your money right now? What are you going to have when the time comes to do a big album?” When I got that diagnosis, I was worried that I wasn’t gonna get the chance to do a big album. If I came out of it but I didn’t have my hearing in my right ear, it would’ve changed everything about my playing career and my journalism career.
This album was totally complete in January 2015 and I went around and took meetings with labels and took a long time. I didn’t wanna do what I did in the past, which was put it out on my own, put it on iTunes and say, “Yay, it’s up.” I wanted to get it placed well, given everything that went into it and given the knowledge I have that it can all stop.
It seemed like you had a difficult time adjusting to the disruption in your music career. Didn’t you head out on the road just a few months into your recovery?
Two and a half months afterwards. It was very, very stupid. I booked that tour myself in the weeks leading up to the operation, because I wanted something that I had to get better for. I figured that if I had those plans, I would have to be OK for it. Because you promise your players money and they’re taking time off of work. But you just can’t go out on the road in February and tour the Midwest and New England like we did and have a hole in your head. So I came back from that and kind of had a new recovery process. I set myself back a bit. And that’s when I made the choice to go back to the drawing board and chase down the big break not on the road, try to get a producer on board and do a big album.
Your wife lived all this with you. What has she made of the way you’ve told these stories in your songwriting?
“When the Hinges Give,” she thinks that’s a really sad song. I think it’s a happy song. That song is the most explicit about what happened.
We had two and a half months where this operation was looming, and we didn’t want to spend too much time worrying about it, but we also didn’t want to just be flippant and not think about it. You don’t want to ruin the time that you have together that could be your last time together, or could be my last time hearing my wife’s voice in stereo hearing.
Your producer Ken Coomer was recovering from his own health crisis around the same time that you were. What sort of environment did that create in the studio?
He was taking medication like I was. I had my alarm that would go off every couple hours. It played Ricky Nelson’s “Hello Mary Lou,” and that was my signal to take my pills.
He had just opened up his new studio called Cartoon Moon, which is in his backyard, like, two blocks away from here. We were the first clients to use that. I think he, like me, was excited about a new phase of his career, doing something that was costly and kind of scary to do, but he’d always wanted to do it. Now that he had a new lease on life, for lack of a better way to put it, he wanted to go ahead and do it. He was exploring the new terrain of his studio, and I was exploring what it felt like to be in the studio again. I was still very much getting better. My hair was growing back in the back.
Didn’t Ken Coomer suggest that you consider hiring a bunch of big-name Nashville players?
You know how things work: when your album credits are a who’s who list of musicians, that’s a useful talking point. You could be sitting here, reeling off names to me. But you didn’t choose to go that route. Why?
A lot of current music coming out of this town can sound similar, and I think it’s because a lot of the exact same people play on it. You have plenty of people who rely on a rotating crew of maybe 30 players who play on everything, and I didn’t want that. I thought this album came from a special enough place that I needed to have more of me on there. So I used these people who at the time were my band. It allowed me to play plenty of lead guitar, which I probably wouldn’t have if we’d had Rob McNelly or somebody like that playing guitar. He’s better than me, but he doesn’t sound like me. It was important to me to drive the album not just as a vocalist, but as an instrumentalist as well. Ken Coomer wound up playing drums. That was not the original plan, but our drummer quit two weeks prior to going into the process. But I think if it’d been “Andrew and the A-list Nashville Cats,” it wouldn’t really have been Andrew and the Homestead.
As for not having a “who’s who” list on the album, we have sort of our own version of it. Courtney Jaye, who’s a great songwriter I played with for years as her guitarist, she does harmonies on “Penitentiary Guys.” And Jill Andrews, also local, she does harmonies on a couple things. I look up to those people more than I would some great sideman who I don’t know.
Speaking of narratives, the fact that you survived a brain tumor to play music again has been a hook in a good bit of the journalistic coverage you’ve received. What’s it like being on the other side of that equation?
Knowing it’s a good story?
I’m worried about overusing that story. Not because I mind talking about it. I definitely don’t. It has a good ending, so I’m happy to share it. But you don’t want to lean too heavily on your own trials and tribulations, because then you come off like a jerk. You come off like a person who’s asking for reparations from people who had nothing to do with you getting sick.
Reparations? You mean sympathy?
Yeah. You’re demanding their empathy or their time. Or their ink. And nobody owes me anything. I don’t want that story to be the only selling point. But it has helped open some doors. It’s given me something to talk about, other than that I’m a guy in Nashville who has long hair and a beard and I tour all the time and play music. And me being a journalist, I can’t overlook that fact. [Coming away with a story to tell] is the silver lining of the whole thing.
I read that your mom taught classical voice lessons.
She was a voice major in college, and a couple years prior to me coming along was a struggling pro classical vocalist and would do church services and weddings, that kind of thing. She taught music when my older brother was born and then switched over to teaching English and history when I was around. She definitely comes from that classical world.
And you received classical instruction and sang in a chorus.
She would not have let me do it any other way.
Tom Petty is one of your foremost influences, and I was thinking about how your singing style compares with his. His singing can be so acidic, or he’ll veer into sung-spoken rock & roll jive.
It’s not pretty sounding.
Definitely not clean, crisp enunciation. But there are things you do, like sustaining notes with vibrato, that made me wonder what you’ve made use of from your classical training and what you had to unlearn in developing your vocal style.
I did classical music all throughout high school. I was in bands as well, but the kind of criticism I got during that time was that I sound like a chorus kid playing guitar. Chorus is just not a cool thing in high school. It’s not the most rock and roll thing. But I didn’t care. It was great.
This was, of course, before Glee.
Of course. After college, I tried out for the Julliard Chorale in New York City as a community member. My roommate worked there, and he said, “Hey, they need guys in this choir.” I got in and it was great. But I think that was the peak of that classical world for me, and it was quite clear that that wasn’t what I wanted to do. A good performance in that world is doing the song exactly how it’s written. It doesn’t really account for how the acoustics might sound different in a room one night, so you turn an instrument up.
How’d you find your thing?
In college I tried to start that. I had a band that was more punky. I think it was me trying to strip all the classical tendencies out of my voice. Later I went back and added what I think is just natural. Vibrato helps keep me on pitch, and if I’m gonna do a three-hour marathon gig, it’s just more natural for me to sing that way. It is not the most, I guess, rock & roll voice. I don’t know who it would sound like. I get told I sound like the guy from the Gin Blossoms a lot, which I don’t mind. I like the Gin Blossoms.
You followed your older brother into guitar lessons. Did you take cues from his musical taste too?
One hundred percent. My dad’s a great dude, but he’s a blue-collar businessman. He’s not a rock & roll guy. And my mom is a classical lady and she loves [opera singer] Kathleen Battle and stuff like that. My brother had to do all that research on his own, kick down those doors on his own, and I got to walk through with him. I grew up in the Eighties and Nineties, and he was into a lot of hair metal, which, I guess, those vocalists kind of sound like classical vocalists at times as well. He introduced me to a world that went beyond my parents’ oldies records. It was a great lesson, that you can think for yourself and you don’t have to do what everyone else says all the time.
Did he turn you on to Tom Petty?
No. I liked Tom Petty. Growing up I would hear him alongside Bruce Hornsby or Don Henley on pop radio. I don’t really know when Tom Petty took hold. I think it was when I was living up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, working at Allmusic.com and that live anthology came out. I don’t think I realized how good of a band they were, how consistent of a band. Something about it flipped a switch for me and it was all I listened to. It’s still all I listen to.
I play an annual Tom Petty tribute show for charity, and playing those songs, they’re so easy. There’s nothing really ornate. There are no challenging guitar parts, apart from maybe “American Girl.” The whole crowd can sing along. There’s something immediately gratifying about hearing that kind of music. Plus he was a rock & roll frontman who could have hits on pop radio, could have hits on modern rock radio, and he’s aged in this very smart way. I would love to meet him one day.
You’ve been into music-making for a long time, but you also studied journalism in college and landed jobs in that field after school. Have there been times when you were torn between which of the two career paths to take more seriously?
I think the only time when I even considered putting anything above playing music was right after college, when all my friends were going to law school or going to backpack around Europe. They all had plans and I didn’t have anything. This offer came through to intern at Spin magazine, which was my dream. I took that job rather than continuing to tour around with my band. In hindsight, I wish I hadn’t. I think I was just young and scared about not having any money. I was getting good journalism gigs, so I chased that path for a bit. . . I was having a hard time knowing that I wanted to play music and could play music and [writing about] other people who had the balls to do it. They didn’t have retirement plans, but I did. I felt like I needed to do it.
Every article I’ve read about you describes you as both a musician and journalist. Both roles are usually spelled out right there in the headline.
Yeah. Haven’t you noticed?
No. I think it just finds its way in, and I’m glad. It’s an uncommon thing, and I’ve tried to walk that line. I don’t want to paint myself into a corner, but I have in a number of respects.
What difference does it seem to make if people think of you as doing both?
I’d be worried a lot of people would think that any headway I’ve made on the music performance side of things is a result of connections I’ve made as a writer — and perhaps it is, but I don’t want them to attribute it all to that. And I want to try to avoid conflicts of interest when I can. My fear is I’m gonna run into a person whose album I’ve totally trashed at one point in time and they’re gonna kick my ass. Generally I don’t do that kind of journalism anymore. It’s more features.
In your journalistic work, you sometimes interact with musicians atop the hierarchy of popularity, critical claim and commercial success, but you’re also intimately acquainted with the reality of the working musician. Your song “Silver Linings” describes a sparsely attended club show. It seems like seeing those disparities up close could make you cynical.
I try not to be, but I think I am. I mean, “Silver Linings” in verse two I talk about a woman. I used Margo Price as the idea for that character. That was back when she was playing gigs at the 5 Spot to, like, 20 people, if that. Now she’s killing it.
At this moment, where do feel like you are on the spectrum of harsh realism to idealism?
Oh, man. One hundred percent at the harsh realism polarity, while keeping my eyes on the idealistic side. You know, there are people like Margo Price or Jason Isbell, people who weren’t given anything. Their parents aren’t rich. They had to just go and get it, and it’s worked. It’s worked because it’s real. That’s why it resonates. So, it can happen. I think there’s something to be said for just doggedly pursuing it.
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