Back when he was in high school, Levi Hummon’s songwriting career nearly ended before it ever began. The son of songwriter Marcus Hummon (“Cowboy Take Me Away,” “Bless the Broken Road”) and Becca Stevens, an author, priest and CNN Hero who founded the Thistle Farms organization to help survivors of abuse and trafficking, Hummon traveled in some interesting and rarefied circles when he was growing up.
One of the family friends was songwriter Desmond Child, whose compositions include gazillion-selling Eighties FM-rock standards like Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and Aerosmith’s “Angel.” At his family’s encouragement, Hummon played a song for Child. It didn’t go well.
“He chewed me out and tore me up,” Hummon tells Rolling Stone. “And I put down my guitar like, ‘Never again.'”
But he eventually resumed writing in earnest as a college student, focusing on the process, and things came full circle when Child offered him a publishing deal with his company. In 2016, Hummon released his self-titled debut EP via Big Machine imprint Valory, which had the maxed-out production favored by Florida Georgia Line and other radio acts of that moment. Hummon shifted gears and went the independent route for 2018’s Patient, co-writing all six songs on the release.
This time, his youthful musings about love like “Change My Life” and “I Still Do” featured ghostly, pitch-shifted vocal fragments alongside acoustic guitars and banjos, underpinned by loops and live drums that felt spacious instead of claustrophobic. It was a step away from trying to please radio and toward trusting his muse for the long term.
“I never even went to radio,” he says. “Once that happens, I feel like I’m gonna be in such a better spot than I was before and so much more prepared. And also be singing music that I’ll hopefully be singing for the rest of my life and not hate myself.”
People know your father’s name through his songwriting career, but now others outside Nashville are recognizing your mother’s life-changing work on behalf of sex-trafficking victims. How has having that influence in your life guided your artistry?
The music world, which is where I come from on my dad’s side, [is] in a lot of ways a self-serving platform. You can write music for other people, but the artist game, if you’re a solo artist especially, it’s all about yourself. But one thing that’s been great about my mom, [she is] completely a place to go for, how am I impacting the world? How am I helping other people? I wrote a song called “Love Heals” and Alison Krauss was on it. It was for [Thistle Farms] because I wanted to be able to talk about it and talk about my story and talk about my mom’s work.
You’re a versatile enough vocalist to pull off a more traditional track like that as well as more contemporary work like “Change My Life” from Patient. How did you develop your voice?
Whenever I do folky stuff, [my dad] is just so in love with it. When we write, it goes to that space. But I grew up listening to everything from Jeff Buckley to Paul Simon to Cat Stevens. After that I started listening to Eddie Vedder, and then it became Mumford & Sons, the Lumineers. As a listener, I just sing and write what I enjoy and what I’m feeling at the moment. Going to something like “Love Heals” is going back in time, to my family, my roots. Whereas this EP I released is going towards what I’m enjoying right now.
I wanted to ask about your single “Songs We Sang,” which has this upbeat nostalgia for the music you loved when you were younger. What songs capture that moment for you?
When I started writing that song, the idea was, I’m singing in all these clubs and I don’t want to do all these covers so I need something super hooky that everybody can sing along. The post part of that chorus is oh na-na-na oh. It automatically clicks. When I was in high school I got my first car and it was my mom’s old gold minivan. I thought I was so cool, riding around with my friends, singing Outkast and Gnarls Barkley and Journey and Foreigner. Me and my friends were in love with all sorts of music. I think about it now — we really did have everything from Gucci Mane all the way to Bruce Springsteen playing on the radio. Those were some of my favorite days.
You released your debut EP through Valory Music Co. and went independent for Patient. What changes have you noticed between these two projects?
What I realize now is that I was very unprepared for a record deal at that point. I was very green. I needed to discover my voice. It’s so hard to do the A&R process and figure out who you are as an artist while you’re being like, I want to be on radio, I want to do this and this and this. A huge step for me was making that first EP, but that wasn’t honestly my voice. And the best thing we could have done to find that was just step away, go on the road, figure out who I am.
What did you learn during that process of stepping away? Was there anything you realized about yourself that you didn’t know before?
There’s a natural development to finding out who I am as an artist, but also stepping away from trying to write for country radio was a huge moment for me at first. I thought that was the game: If you write a really commercial radio hit, then people are gonna love it. I kept writing these really catchy, cool songs, but it wasn’t what I wanted to talk about. Probably fans and people could sense that as well.
I get that. It always seems pretty transparent when an artist is trying to chase something.
In a lot of ways, I was like, “Oh, the game is, you gotta chase.” But then I learned, the game is you create what people want to chase and go from there.