Interview: Jerry Leger

There are many adjectives you could use to describe Jerry Leger, but one word that immediately springs to mind is “prolific”. Time Out For Tomorrow’, released on the 8th of November, is the 9th studio release from the talented Canadian since he turned 19 years of age, along with three more albums with his side projects, The Del-Fi’s and The Bop-Fi’s. It’s also arguably his finest work to date. Of ‘Time Out For Tomorrow’ his producer Michael Timmins (founding member of the Cowboy Junkies) said: “..it’s the 3rd (album) in a row that I’ve had the pleasure of producing. In my opinion it’s the most precise example of his craft and vision so far. It’s lean, mean and a beautiful collection of songs and sounds.”

In a recent review of the album for Americana UK – which was awarded a mightily impressive 9 out of 10 – Andrew Frolish said, ‘‘Time Out for Tomorrow’ is full of poetry, arresting images and narrative details that capture attention…Since his 2005 debut, Leger has been hugely prolific while managing a remarkably consistent quality in his output. ‘Time Out for Tomorrow’ is no exception, finding Leger and his band, The Situation, in fine form.” Mark Underwood of Americana-UK sat down with Jerry Leger to talk about the new record.

Hi Jerry, great to talk to you again. We’re hugely enjoying the latest record. It seems like something of a departure from ‘Nonsense and Heartache,’ your previous release, even down to the recording length which on ‘Nonsense and Heartache’ was almost twice as long. Did you deliberately decide to go for a leaner, more straightforward approach this time out (the record comes in just shy of 36 minutes’ duration), or was that just how things came about in the writing process?
‘Nonsense’ for the most part thrived musically on not rushing to get anywhere. ’Heartache’ was focused on the craft of song in a roots-folk-songwriter tradition. Both naked in a way. I think every record I’ve made lives in its own world. I wanted this one to have a brightness in sound and directness in content and performance.

When I first heard that the expected title for the new album was ‘Time Out For Tomorrow’, and that it was based on an early ‘60s dime store collection of science fiction short stories (by US author Richard Wilson), I did wonder whether this record might have been something of a departure and perhaps we’d get a sci-fi concept album or song cycle from you, but instead I hear the title was more to do with the fact it somehow fit the mood of the songs one way or another. Could you expand a bit on that?
It’s hard to have a clear explanation but the title just seemed to fit. Maybe parts of the album are a bit sci-fi. We’re living in strange times.

While the record has a spontaneous and immediate feel, it sounds like you had a pretty clear idea of what you were looking to achieve with this album. The recording took only about a week. Is that right?
Yeah, it took about that. Well, we rehearsed these tunes more than we have before recording other records. I wanted to get not just a blueprint but something close to a solid arrangement this time around. Of course some of the songs were reworked or rearranged at the last minute too. ‘Canvas of Gold’ was written right before we went in, so that was more worked out while recording it. The song was new to everyone. I definitely had it in my head how I wanted the album to sound. I think the only other record that I made where I felt that way was ‘You, Me & The Horse.’ So far, this album is the closest I’ve ever gotten to what’s in my head.

The album continues your long association with Mike Timmins. What is it that you particularly think he brings to the whole recording and production process?
He leaves us alone unless he has a suggestion or hints when something could be changed and made better. I like a producer that doesn’t make it his record. I also love the way he recorded and mixed the album.

I know that when you were recording the album that the two records you had in mind were Lou Reed’s ‘Coney Island Baby’ and Nick Lowe’s ‘Impossible Bird’. What is it about them that most appeals and how did you try and bring their influence to bear on the new record?
Coney Island Baby‘ just coasts along so nicely. I especially love the drum sound on that record, not to mention the words. Lou was one of the best. ‘Impossible Bird’ is one of those records that makes me feel good when I hear it. Something about the sound. Some dark stuff on there but I still feel comforted. Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, Tom Petty records are like that. I wanted to make an album that gave me that feeling.

I think there’s some great work by Dan Mock on bass on the album. The opening bass line on ‘Justine’ sounds like something Herbie Flowers could have come up with on Lou Reed’s ‘Transformer’. Did you do anything special to get that sound on ‘Justine’ and other songs like ‘Tell A Lie?’
Dan is an amazing musician and singer. He’s playful on ‘Justine’ and you really get to hear him on this record. I love the last little bit of ‘Read Between the Lines.’ I never quite heard all the subtleties till listening to the mixes. The best Elvis records for me were when they didn’t mix his vocals so high above the band. I was conscious of that. Wanted parts like Dan’s to really burst through so you could hear how special they are.

The playing from the band is really impressive throughout. I love the slide work on ‘Canvas of Gold’, ‘Read Between the Lines’, ‘Burchell Lake,’ ‘Tell A Lie’, and ‘Corner Light’. Was that something you and James McKie (guitar) came up with in the studio?
This is the best the band has ever sounded. Kyle Sullivan is my favourite drummer around. His playing floors me on this album and we got that sound for them that I’ve been dying to have on record for a while.

James is one of those rare players. He can come up with something signature on the fly or work a part out. Some of those songs were parts he worked out. The riff in ‘Tell A Lie‘ is doubling mine though. Some of my songs I start off with a riff like ‘Den of Sin‘ or ‘For Hire.’ ‘Canvas of Gold‘ – I love his playing on that – and he came up with that the first time he heard it in the studio. On ‘Read Between the Lines‘ he changed the intro slightly while we recorded it. Gave it an oddness, like when you hear a song you know in a dream but when you wake up you know it wasn’t quite how it actually is. I dig that.

Getting into the specifics of some of the songs on the record, I know the opening words to the first song ‘Canvas of Gold’ – “Everything was almost decided when we young, you’ll stay poor like your family before and I’ll keep hustling” – is something of a reference to the gentrification of Toronto. What was the inspiration for the song and album title, though?
I guess there’s a bit of that scattered through my recent writing since it’s happening around me. The hustle and grind is part of the job. You gotta have faith in your abilities and have the drive.

A lot of your lyric writing has always struck me as quite obtuse or elliptical but songs like ‘Justine’ sound quite novelistic – “A prison is a fine place to end a marriage / And Texas is a fine state for losing your mind..” How did you come to write that particular song?
I wrote the song after reading the book ‘You Can’t Win’. It’s an autobiography released in the 1920s by a former burglar and hobo – Jack Black. The song isn’t about that but there were a few lines that were inspired by the book. The Texas line was just supposed to be a play on words or something. I like throwing the occasional pun or wordplay in: “Fine state of losing your mind. You follow her all the way down there and then get burned. Try to make it back home emotionally and physically intact”. 

I’m currently undecided as to whether the beautiful piano- led ballad ‘That Ain’t Here’ or the more uptempo, ‘Corner Light’ is my favourite song on the record. Do you have a particular favourite, and if so, why?
Those are good picks. ‘I Would‘ is probably my favourite on the record because it’s real nice and simple. It feels like it’s always been around but I’m happy I wrote it.

I understand that for the tune ‘Burchell Lake’ that you went on a personal journey to explore many of Ontario’s largely unknown ghost towns, having been inspired by the writer and historian Ron Brown. Can you tell us a bit about the trip?
It was great! There’s a lot of ghost towns off of Highway 7 going towards Ottawa. I had Ron Brown’s books with me and that helped with knowing which ones to check out. I dug seeing the remnants of these old places, maybe just half a barn remains but some would have a gas station or inn still standing. I emailed the song to him and he liked it. He also started recommending other places to check out. We’ve become sort of pen pals.

While your songwriting isn’t overtly political ‘Burchell Lake’ seems to continue something of a theme along with the title track about how obsession with profit and gentrification negatively impacts people’s lives. Is that a fair assessment?
That’s fair but I don’t think I was conscious of that angle when I was writing it. Maybe subconsciously since it does fit into the theme. ‘That Ain’t Here‘ is a bit more political, more social. It’s hard not to be disgusted with some of these world leaders. I want to live in a world of peace, love and understanding!

There have been some famously great outtakes from previous recording sessions of yours such as ‘Beating the Storm’ and ‘You Really Got It So Bad’ that never made it out at the time you recorded them. Was there much material left over from the recording sessions for ‘Canvas of Gold?’
Yeah, there’s about 8 or 9 other songs that we recorded. Some of those were considered for the final sequence but I feel good with the leanness of this album.

And tell us what 2020 has got in store for Jerry Leger and the band?
Well, I know we’re gonna be back overseas touring in April and May. I don’t know the dates just yet but I’m looking forward to getting back and bringing this record with us.

Time Out For Tomorrow’ is out now on Latent Recordings

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