“It’s really hard to get arrested in New Orleans,” says Dylan LeBlanc, rapping a heavy silver ring he’s wearing on the table in front of him for emphasis. Somehow, though, the singer-songwriter managed that feat in 2014.
“I got into some sort of scuffle in the street and I was super drunk, and I spent the night in jail,” he says, recalling darker days during an interview in Nashville, where he now lives. “The scary thing is you’re in OPP, which is Orleans Parish Prison, because there is no city jail in New Orleans. Being a privileged dude — that’s white and a male — to be in that world, it was one of the most frightened I’ve ever been in my life.”
Even so, LeBlanc relates to those who operate outside the norms, or even laws, of society. It’s why he titled his superb new album Renegade and sings about such characters in the LP’s moody title track. (“Police car radio howling out an APB/some bad motherfucker and they say he looks a lot like me,” goes one scene-setting lyric.) Growing up in the years after Hurricane Katrina in Shreveport, Louisiana, and later Muscle Shoals, Alabama, he witnessed an influx of displaced souls, some looking for refuge, others for trouble.
“‘Renegade’ is about people I grew up with. When Katrina happened, all these kids were coming in from New Orleans and they were all like gangsters, straight off the street. I ran with people like that. Those were my friends and I always got along really well with them,” says the long-haired 29-year-old.
Aside from his run-in in New Orleans, however, LeBlanc didn’t follow a criminal path. Instead, he took to writing songs and playing music upon moving to Muscle Shoals to be with his father, a songwriter at legendary producer Rick Hall’s Fame Studios. It was there, he says, where he received his musical education, from the culturally rich region, his dad and especially Hall. “He was the epitome of an old-school business owner,” he says of Hall, who died in 2018. “It was like talking to the William Faulkner of music.”
Eventually LeBlanc’s education reached beyond the Muscle Shoals sound and into the easy folk of California’s Laurel Canyon. He cites Neil Young and Todd Rundgren as key influences and asserts that 1977 was the best year for music.
“Rumours,” he offers as his evidence. “Whenever I go in and make a record, I try to get that Fleetwood Mac drum and bass tone.”
He achieves that on Renegade, but also favors swirling reverb effects and ethereal guitar tones that all but swallow you up. To put on Renegade is to instantly time travel to 3:00 a.m., regardless of when you are actually playing the LP.
But the follow-up to 2016’s dreamy Cautionary Tale is also a defiant rock & roll record, thanks to his new backing band the Pollies. LeBlanc reached out to the Alabama group, who released their own album Transmissions in 2018, when his former players went their separate ways with booked dates on the calendar. They gelled so well, especially he and his old friend, guitarist Jay Burgess, that he knew he wanted to record what would become Renegade with the Pollies.
He just had to persuade his producer Dave Cobb — who almost invariably uses his own studio musicians.
“I sat there and his face fell when I said, ‘I want to use my guys,'” LeBlanc says. “He said, ‘Well, I have this formula and it works,’ and I said, ‘I know it works and that your guys are great, but let me have one session with the Pollies. If you don’t like them, send them home and we can use your guys.’ It was something we never spoke about again.”
Which is to say that Cobb and the Pollies clicked. So much so in fact that LeBlanc and Cobb wrapped up Renegade in three days, using the bulk of the leftover time to mix the album.
“Working with Dave was the first time I worked with a producer who really produces. He’s out on the floor cutting with you, playing acoustic [guitar],” he says. “What you hear is what you get; that’s what we sound like when we play live. Dave is really good at that. He’s not one of those guys who will give you a whole ton of options. You make the decision right then and there in the studio. It’s easier to just keep working and let it be what it is.”
At just 37 minutes, Renegade is a compact listen but allows LeBlanc to dig into some weighty issues. LeBlanc was raised Southern Baptist and would go to bed terrified that demons would steal his soul after sitting through fire-and-brimstone sermons delivered by his local preacher. In the tumultuous “Damned,” he stares down that red-faced preacher and his message.
“Religion screws itself. It could help a lot of people and it caves in on itself,” he says. “It’s exclusive and, to me, anything that is exclusive is a cause of violence. When you say, ‘This is the only way and there is no other way,’ it’s like god is an egomaniac or something. You’re reducing god to a humanlike level.”
In “Domino,” he returns to that New Orleans cell to recount his conversation with a prostitute locked up alongside him. She was abused and safer in prison, she confided in him. Despite being drunk and scared, he remembers the encounter vividly. “It was fear,” he says.
These days, LeBlanc is sober, working the program on a daily basis, but he admits to slipping a few months back while on tour.
“I relapsed not long ago and I’m just now getting myself back together. I hate to admit it, because it embarrasses me and disappoints me, but we went to Europe and I lost it,” he says. “You go into a bar, and everyone is having fun, and the next thing you know you’re sipping a beer and you go, ‘Oh, this is not good.'”
It’s that clarity that separates this LeBlanc from the one who ended up in that Crescent City drunk tank five years earlier. He still looks back at the incident as an ultimately life-changing lesson, even if he can now view it with a dash of humor.
“The funny thing was I didn’t get booked. They never did a breathalyzer, and by the time [morning came] around, they were like, ‘Fuck it,'” he says. “I just walked out.”