Black Deer Festival Interview: Dylan LeBlanc talks frankly about his musical heritage, songwriting and fatherhood

Photo: Nick Barber

Dylan LeBlanc is steeped in music and his love for it is clearly totally unwavering. When American UK’s Clint West spoke to him at the recent Black Deer Festival he got the feeling that Dylan LeBlanc would happily talk about music all day such was the fire and passion in his words. At times he became really quite animated and it was clear that this was genuine. Not only is he a superb writer of songs, a great musician and an engaging performer, but like the rest of us, it’s clear he’s also a big fan, and for me, that really counts. Having played an early set right at the start of the festival on Friday I caught up with Dylan backstage on Saturday afternoon.

How are you finding Black Deer?

Loving it man, it’s fun, a really fun festival and beautiful.

You played yesterday so what have you been doing since then?

Yeah, I played yesterday but I’m hanging around. I’ve been jamming with some friends and watching some music.

Your background is in Louisiana and then Muscle Shoals, obviously there is so much musical heritage there. How has that fed into what you do now?

I’ve been surrounded by music my whole life. I was raised by my mother and my grandmother primarily. My father was making music, so he was in Muscle Shoals as a staff writer, and also in Nashville. He worked at Fame, he was a musician, and a songwriter, and a session player. I moved in with him when I was 10 and stayed for three years and spent a lot of time at the studio there. That’s kind of how I got introduced to music.

That’s some introduction!

Yeah, it’s a hell of an introduction (laughs). The thing that was cool about Muscle Shoals was how much the focus was on writing, about being a songwriter and how important it was to be a songwriter first because you can’t do anything if you don’t have any material. So that got drilled into my head by everyone, so I had to sit down and learn how to write a song. During that process I got to hang out with Donnie Fritts, Spooner Oldham and all those guys.

I believe you also played in a punk band when you were young.

Yeah, when I was a kid, when I was living in Shreveport where I’m originally from, in high school me and a good buddy of mine named Daniel Goodwill started a band – we were terrible but it was a lot of fun, very loud.

It’s amazing how many people in ‘americana’ music came through from that punk background, why do you think that is?

Yeah of course, we loved the Sex Pistols, but actually I think it’s similar. Punk is about trying to sing about your situation and things that you’re angry about, things that you’d like to see changed. I think americana is the same thing. When I think of americana music I think of the Dustbowl, the Great Depression, I think of Nina Simone, I think of Woody Guthrie, I think of Leadbelly, people who were writing about their situation and they wanted a change. So those two things coincide well with one another. Punk orientated artists they feel that. They feel Johnny Cash singing “I hear that train a comin’, it’s rolling ‘round the bend, and I ain’t seen the sunshine, since I don’t know when”, those things that people feel and you can’t not feel that. It’s truth, you hear truth, you know it when you hear it. I think those things are very in line with one another.

When your first album ‘Pauper’s Field’ came out in 2010 it was hugely well received, and you ended up touring with lots of really big names. How did that feel? Did it put a lot of pressure on you?

I mean I was young. I was 20 so I didn’t know what to do. I feel like I wasn’t well seasoned. I knew how to write a song but I didn’t know how to be a performer, I didn’t know how to captivate an audience yet, so I had a lot to learn as far as being a performer was concerned. I always knew how to write a song, I’d written many songs by then, but I was young and I didn’t know what the process meant and I had a lot to learn, very green, so yeah it was a lot of pressure, and also I felt like a failure because I felt like I wanted to sell more records than I sold and I didn’t sell that many. It was well received but of course being well received and selling records are two different things.

It was a great record and I think each subsequent record has shown something different and seen you develop, and I understand that you have a new one on the way.

Yeah, I’ve got a new album coming out on October 13th called ‘Coyote’. I feel like it’s the best record I’ve ever made and I recorded it in Muscle Shoals, again at Fame. It was great to go back there because I recorded the last two in different places, so it was great to go back to Fame and I had all these songs, I had so many songs. I recorded seventeen and there’s going to be twelve on the record and that’s hard too man, I’m trying so hard to pick the right ones, because I love them all, but the LP needs to be twelve, but I do feel it’s a great record. I feel like it’s a relatable record. I do feel like its gonna be one that can reach the most number of people so we’ll see.

Does it have that Muscle Shoals Fame sound and feel to it?

It’s definitely the most Muscle Shoals album that I’ve ever made, I can tell you that. It feels like it came from Muscle Shoals.

Is there anyone in particular that played on it?

Yeah, I had Fred Eltringham on drums, he’s a killer player, plays with Sheryl Crow. I had Seth Kauffman on bass. I had some really major players on this record, Jim Brown on keys, he’s incredible, a great string section from Nashville came and played strings. I had my father with me too, he played guitar and we got to share the guitar duties, that was great having him there. I hired him to play, I needed him, he does a certain thing, and he does it so well and it fitted this record just perfectly and it was just great to be with him and hang.

Are you going to back out touring again when the record comes out?

Yeah, Yeah, I have a six-week European tour coming up from October 28th through to December 16th, I’ll be in London on October 31st and I’m really looking forward to that. I’m playing the Courtyard Theatre – never been there before. I think I’m playing Manchester too and I know I’m playing Birmingham as well as Brighton. We’re not playing too many UK shows but I’m looking forward to them.

I noticed that you have a young child now, has that changed your life?

Yes of course, as it does, its definitely changed my life, for the better. I don’t feel like I’m flying in the wind anymore, I have a reason to succeed. I’ve never had that before, now everything means more, like this new release it means more, I need it to succeed because I have a little one. I need to do better, as a human, in every aspect of my life. I need to keep myself cleaner and my mind sharper. Having a family puts your priorities in line.

Yes, it changes your whole outlook on life, and I think what you will find is that it adds so much to your life. People say you can’t do this, and you can’t do that, but it’s also about what you can do and what a positive experience it is in that it adds to and enhances your life in so many ways.

You’re so right. I haven’t missed anything. I didn’t know that would happen, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I was scared, but when I saw her eyes I thought “yes, this is who I’m supposed to be, I’m supposed to be her father” and that was it.

As somebody who is a working musician, but also clearly a lover of music generally, do you still get time to listen to other people and have you come across anything recently that you really like?

You know there’s a new band called The Heavy Heavy and they’re on the same label that I’m on [ATO Records] and they’re really good. They’re from the UK. Dude, you’ve got to listen to this record they put out [Life and Life Only]. It’s some of the best music I’ve heard in a long time. It’s one of those records like Side A to Side B the whole thing is great, and their harmonies are insanely good. That’s one new record that just come out, it came out in March and God man I love it, I can’t stop listening to it. Killer killer live band too, they bring it dude, 100%. I’m hoping I can tour with them too, I wanna go out with them, I’m a huge fan. British band dude – killer. You’ve got to represent them, that’s your people!

How does it feel coming over to a festival like this, which is obviously an americana festival where most of the performers are American, not all, but a large percentage. Does that feel like home-from-home or does that feel a bit strange?

No, it’s good. Its nice when anybody likes the type of music that comes from where you’re from, but I do think British music and American music they go together so well. I think we rely on each other; The Beatles are still the biggest band in the world. You can’t go anywhere without people knowing who they are. What British music gives to American music is equally as important as what American music has given to British music. I feel like we love each other, and we respect each other. There are so many records in my top 10 that came from Great Britain…and thank God they were made.

Who or what in particular do you like?

[George Harrison’s] ‘All Things Must Pass’, if that record wasn’t made this world would be different. That record shaped a lot of the way I like my albums to sound sonically. Leon Russell played on that fuckin’ record, Eric Clapton played on that record, so it was like all these guys – Alan White, Nicky Hopkins, these are killer good players, and then the same guys were also on Lennon’s records, its just so cool how Americans and Brits have come together and really added to this pot of amazing music. I would say americana to me is about a truth, its about finding something in the music that people can elevate their mind with and open their mind with because it really was that way back in the day. I mean americana came from the thirties. When I think of americana I think of Leadbelly, I think of Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie and how dangerous it was. It was literally dangerous to sing songs like that. I can’t imagine being a black woman in 1961 and writing ‘Mississippi Goddam’. That’s dangerous, they could kill you for saying and speaking out. That took balls man. That’s what America’s about and that’s what Great Britain is about, its about tearing things down that need to be torn down and rebuilding better, and music has played a huge part in that. So has entertainment of all different sorts.

So, you believe in the power of music to effect change?

Oh 100%. I believe it can change things for the better. I remember when I was at Glastonbury in 2011 – I don’t know why the fuck I was on that bill, but I remember I was watching Radiohead from backstage, and they started with ’15 Step’ from ‘Rainbows’ and this is when I knew how powerful music really was. I was 21 and I’d just been drinking bourbon and brandy and cider with Thom Yorke and hanging out. Then he gets on stage and when he starts the song like 180,000 people rushed the stage and they were waving flags from Israel, I saw a flag from Tennessee, they’re waving flags from New York, they’re waving flags from Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia, Senegal and all these countries and it gave me chills man. It was like holy shit, nothing on planet earth can bring all these different people together other than music, and everyone agreed on one thing, they were about to fuckin’ rock out to some Radiohead. They were all there for that same reason and that’s the power of music. It can change things, it can. I don’t care what people say. That’s why when I write, I try and write things that mean something, that can open somebody’s mind.

Do you do that consciously?

Oh, absolutely man, I think it’s important, very important. That’s what the people who play the long game in music do, they do what feels good to them and what sounds good to them, even if its risky. So, I like that, that is americana.

Before we wind up, I think what’s really come across to me is your absolute enthusiasm for music. I can see that as well as a writer and a performer, you’re a big fan and I think that resonates with people.

I love it. I wouldn’t be here now if I didn’t absolutely get off on music. It does something to me, a real high man. You write a great song, you record it, you hear it back and you think holy fuck, that wasn’t in the world and now it is. I think being a writer of music, of books or creating a television show or being a creator of anything, it’s as close to a God like feeling as you can get, without sounding cocky or anything, I don’t mean it like that. It’s kind of omnipotent, the closest you can get as a human to that. You’ve created something and you didn’t destroy anything, and nobody got hurt. Its like a great feeling.

It’s like a legacy for you.

Exactly and it will be here long after I’m gone, just like there were so many things here when I got here. I was born into a world of great music. Its like people who were born in 1940 what were they born into? I mean radio and records were just coming out, there was not the ways to discover new things. I was born into a whole load of stuff that was already here, ‘Led Zeppelin I, II, III and IV’, Springsteen was here, they were all here and they created this world for me, and its amazing and I’m grateful for it.

Some people say that all those great names, we don’t have modern equivalents. Do you see people coming through now that people will still be listening to in 40 or 50-years time?

We don’t. You know as times change; I think people change. Maybe people like Taylor Swift, she’s just massive right, so yeah maybe in fifty years, people will go oh yeah Taylor Swift right. I think the quality changes. I think from 1955 to 1980 was in my opinion the pinnacle of great music and writing as far as creativity is concerned, a lot of great shit got made and I don’t know if the bar can ever be raised any higher. We can mimic it, and all people do. I hate it when people say, “this doesn’t sound original”, it’s the biggest crock of shit ever. Everyone’s been ripping people off since the day we were born. Zeppelin were ripping people off, The Beatles were ripping people off but that’s what music is. It’s like we hear something that we like, and we go “I’m going to create something that sounds like that” and that’s OK is what I’m saying. Its not a bad thing and people are “oh that’s not original”, I think people are too concerned with that, especially young people, and I hate that. There’s nothing that you are going to do that’s going to make you any more original than anything that’s ever fuckin’ happened before, so wipe that from your little mind and just create because you dig it, because you like it. Fuck it, people are going to like it, some people are going to hate it, fuck them, who cares? You got to do what you want to do. We’re living in a society where people are too concerned about how people feel about them, that is so fuckin’ unhealthy man. I just do my thing, I’m gonna just keep writing songs and putting records out.

Do you think that the way we consume music these days tends against a repetition of those big bands from the past? People used to buy an album and play it repeatedly whereas nowadays its more about the individual song and people move on so quickly.

Yeah, I think the attention span of the general public is probably lower than it’s ever been. I think you used to have to listen to a record and to digest it. If you spent good money on it you have to hear the whole thing and even if you’re not sure you don’t give up, and then you hear it again and you think “fuck I love that” Nowadays its an instant judgement, I like that or I don’t like that, so if you don’t catch them right then, they won’t go back to you. It’s like many classic records the first time I heard them I had to digest them, I didn’t always love it the first time I heard it, but I love it after living with it for a while, but people don’t listen like that anymore and that hurts. Streaming has most definitely changed the industry and young people in general need to be told what’s good, they don’t know.

I have a 14 year old son who loves music but the vast majority of what he listens to was made way before he was born and I just feel a bit sad that he doesn’t have equal access to new stuff that he can get equally excited about.

They say that 70% of everything people listen to on Spotify is catalogue and only 30% are new releases and that’s a tough thing to break through. Like I’m about to put a record out and I want to reach as many people as possible but its tough. It used to be that around 10,000 records would come out in a year but now its like 100,000. Anybody can do it, anybody can put it out and there’s just so much music out there that you really have to try hard and beat it to death, and don’t be afraid to beat it to death – this is good, this is good motherfucker listen to it.

I would just say, not that you need my advice,  just keep doing it, because its good music and people will catch up in the end.

Yes, I’ve been building my fanbase one fan at a time. It’s been slow for me but I’ve worked hard and I appreciate those fans. Those people that came to see me yesterday, they were fans and they’ve been with me every step of the way, and there’s a certain gratification in that because I’m a bit of a cult dude, you either love my voice, or you fuckin’ hate it. People who are with me are with me and I know they are with me, and I’ll be with them. We’re in the trenches together and they’ll follow me forever and that means a lot. I like that better than being an overnight sensation because its like I earned that shit.

Dylan LeBlanc’s new album ‘Coyote’ will be released on October 13th on ATO Records.

About Clint West 323 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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Dylan is one of my absolute favorites! I love the article…great questions and amazing answers. Very interesting! Thanks!