Interview: Jerry Leger on why he can’t have enough echo on “Donlands“

Credit: Laura Proctor

Having the confidence to show more of yourself brings more mature songwriting.

Jerry Leger has released his 14th album which is not only one of his best but it also gives listeners a glimpse of a maturing artist. Americana UK’s review of ‘Donlands’ is here, and Martin Johnson caught up with Jerry Leger at his Toronto home to discuss the album and explain why he chose to work with renowned producer and engineer Mark Howard, who has worked with the likes of Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, The Del McCoury Band, Johnny Cash and Courtney Marie Andrews to name only a few. He explains that on previous albums his love of echo had always been restrained by the people he was working with but that this time, echo became a foundation of the sound which at times looks back to film noir soundtracks. Jerry Leger explains that the songs in their original format were quite different, with the final arrangements being created in the studio. He shares the fact that a key part of the soundscape is the space created during recording which helps listeners focus on the lyrics, and why he is now confident enough to show more of his true self, which can lead to more vulnerable songs but also at the same time, a sense of hopefulness. Also, Jerry Leger says that the record should be consumed whole from start to finish and that in his live shows, he has featured all the songs on the record in the same order as the record. Finally, he admits that when he is on tour and at the merch stall, he is more interested in chatting with people about other artists very often than selling his merch.

How are you, and where are you?

I just got back to Toronto and I’m fighting the jetlag now but I’m good. I tried to stay up as much as I could, but I was still up too early this morning. I’m pretty busy, which is good, so I need to get back to normal as soon as possible which helps with the jetlag, even though it’s a struggle to get things done.

What does it feel like to release your 14th album, ‘Donlands’?

I’ve been doing it since I was 19.  I guess they pile up and I like to keep busy. I don’t know, it’s not like I’ve forced myself to write a lot of songs or release many records, it’s just like it happened that way. I do enjoy it, that’s the part that I love, and I love writing and recording and playing live, and those are the three things that keep me going, you know.

While ‘Donlands’ is still a Jerry Leger record, you’ve mixed it up a bit by going back for inspiration, why was that?

The songs were already written before Mark Howard became involved, and when he did get involved it definitely dictated which batch of songs we were going to go in with. It was a real combination between him and I nearing down a bunch of songs to ten, and they all work together. It’s pretty cool, you know, the record came out like I hoped it would with the song choices and what we hoped it would be like. It is still very me, actually, the sound of it is very much what I really like. There are a few different-sounding records that I really like, and that’s one of them I love. I love records that feel like they are between dimensions, you don’t really know how they were made but you do know they weren’t made with any gimmicks or trickery. It is just a combination of the songs, the performances, and engineering. So it is still very me, but it definitely stands out compared to my other records. This has a lot of space on it, and there are things on it that maybe I achieved in small ways on other records, but this time I was able to make a whole record with a certain vision as far as the sound is concerned, and the presentation.

It’s not a concept album, but all the songs hang together and make something as a whole. How easy was it to achieve that with Mark Howard?

I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest. I didn’t know what our working relationship was going to be like. Going into record I had confidence in my songs and my own ability, and I knew I wasn’t going to be pushed into doing something I didn’t want to do. It’s not like that, that’s why I’ve made all these other albums completely the way I wanted to, but having known Mark’s previous work, those records he’s worked on, that’s the sound I wanted. I was going in very willing to listen to suggestions he had, and if it didn’t work we tried something else, if I didn’t like it we tried something else. For the most part, he was really able to get to the heart of those songs. One way he was able to do that was with something some artists fear to do, and that is not rushing it. We slowed a lot of the songs down to give them more space and breadth, and I think it worked out beautifully because it made the lyrics, the words, more impactful. It gives time for them to sink in with the listener and for them to really reflect on them.

I think that was the big thing, we weren’t scared to pull it out a bit, except for one song, ‘You Carry Me’, which is kind of the only rock & roll song on the record. I see the whole album as a cinematic experience, it feels like a story or a movie, and ‘You Carry Me’ is kind of the scene when they walk into a club. It is part of the journey of the record, which is also why on the tour we were playing the album from start to finish. I didn’t feel like I was ready to start breaking it up, and it was the first time I felt an album was a total experience, even though ideally my other albums should be listened to like that because that’s how I sequenced them from the first track to the last track.

How easy was it to replicate the tracks live?

It was very easy because we recorded the record pretty much live. We went in with certain arrangements, and then we kind of reconstructed it with new arrangements on the spot. So, I think it was a little bit tricker for say Dan Mock on bass because he had to remember all those little things he was doing on the record that he essentially just came up with on the fly. Overall we know the songs, and they still evolve live, we didn’t play the album exactly like the record. So, live tempos can change a little bit because you are in a different setting and it’s a different experience, but the spirit of it remained and I really enjoyed doing it.

We are going to keep doing that for as long as we are touring this album until we move on to the next thing. I just think it is a really cool experience, and it went over really well. I think it made it a more special experience, and I think live music is already special but playing this record from start to finish in different cities, we even did that at the festivals we played too. I think it had the desired effect, and I’m happy the crowd got into it with us.

Did you manage to keep that space live, because sometimes the tempo changes when songs are played live?

The good thing is that the band I have is so great it was like nobody was filling in those spaces. There was no overplaying at all, and no adding too much at all. We did actually get a lot of comments about the live show having so much space. So, we didn’t have a problem there, and the tempos I’m sure weren’t exactly like the record because you’re in a live setting. I’m sure some of them were a bit faster, but still not really fast at all. It is just a different energy to playing on an album, so we were able to keep it true to the album, without it being a note-for-note thing.

When you were writing the songs did you have the film noir vision in mind already?

That was more when we were recording the record with the particular sound I wanted to get by working with Mark. I think overall it became that feeling to me, but I think only the song ‘Slow Night In Nowhere Town’ was written with that kind of image in my head, but the other songs, not really. Some of the songs were a lot faster when I wrote them, ‘I Was Right To Doubt Her’ was an acoustic finger-picked almost folk number, you know. ‘Out There Like The Rain’ was a little faster. Those songs entered that world when we entered the studio, we took them into that world with us, but they weren’t necessarily written with that world in mind. Some of those songs would definitely have been recorded differently if we hadn’t worked with Mark Howard. The opening song, ‘Sort Me Out’, which is very beautiful, I wrote that as a faster song with a Motown backbeat. The structures of the songs didn’t change, it is the same song with a different arrangement.

How did you get involved with Mark Howard?

It was through a mutual friend, Kate Boothman. She was making a record with Mark, which is out now, under her new stage name Katie Cruel, and she thought of me and thought Mark and I would hit it off. We did, and we recorded it in five days, and we worked really well together. I think there was that mutual trust and we were able to work quickly. It was a really special week and a cool experience, and there were no disagreements only respect and he was able to push the band and they responded in the best way by showing what they could do. I think it worked really well, and it was my friend Katie because I don’t think I would have thought of making a record with him, but I’m really glad I did. He’s also made records with some of my favourites and biggest influences, people I really respect, so it is nice to be part of that story.

Some people have mentioned Tom Waits and Johnny Ace as influences on Donlands’, do you agree with that?

Tom Waits is one of my favourite songwriters and one of my biggest influences, but I never get compared to him because of that voice which I think has saved me from people cluing in on what I’m heavily influenced by. He is a real favourite of mine and those records which Mark recorded like ‘Real Gone’, which was a real big record for me when it came out and I still love it. I still have my old 2004 vinyl copy, and they’ve since remixed it but I prefer my original copy.

I love Johnny Ace, and I think the Johnny Ace thing was mentioned because those early records are very haunting-sounding with those echo chambers and that early tape echo. That song, ‘Pledging My Love’, has a trickle piano opening but it has got all that echo and it doesn’t really sound like a piano. I also felt coincidently when Alan Zemaltis, who plays keys on the album, started playing his part on ‘Sort Me Out’ with that echo on it that really reminded me of those Johnny Ace songs, which I was really happy about. I’m used to making records and fighting with producers and mixing engineers to get more echo, and this was the first record where I didn’t have to because there was already plenty of echo before we got out of the studio. Half the record was just mixed in the studio, Mark just mixed it as we listened back to what we’d done, and he printed the echo at the same time, which is pretty neat and an old-school way of making records. I was into that.

The songs seem darker than normal but there is an overall sense of hope. Was that deliberate?

Maybe when Mark was going through the songs he saw the thread in the lyrics, but I’m not sure. I agree, I find ‘Wounded Wing’ pretty hopeful, yeah, there are a few of them that are not just depressing. I think as we get older we become less afraid of showing ourselves, and I think this record is the most vulnerable I’ve been in places, and also vocally. Mark suggested I sing softer and closer to the mic, and we didn’t use any headphones which makes you sing differently too. I think there is a vulnerability in the singing as well, but that’s not to be confused with being weak or less confident, it is actually being more confident in yourself to allow yourself to be more naked in that way. The song ‘I Need Love’, I wrote that in kind of a vulnerable state. It had nothing to do with a relationship with one other person, I was just feeling like I needed more comfort, you know. It is just this world and life, I think we all have these moments of just feeling alone. So, yeah, it’s a vulnerable record, but there is also hope in there too. I don’t find it a depressing record just a little bit more open-hearted, I guess.

You are maturing.

Yeah, finally.

Canada has produced some fine songwriters over the years, why do you think that is?

I’m not too sure, maybe it’s because there’s so much around us, as well as what’s here. I’ve just been obsessed with music since I was a little kid, I started with The Beatles and John Lennon, and also as I got older I started rediscovering in my teens all the country music artists that I’d heard as a little kid from my grandparents. I’ve just been very obsessive about records and artists, wanting to do what they do, and it’s just been very much my whole life. If I wanted to quit tomorrow I could say that, but I’d quit for a day and then be drawn back to it. It is a tough industry, as most people know now, and some days you think this is pretty crazy and not a great way, but then I find comfort by picking up a guitar or sitting at the piano, and the songs start coming and I want to play them and record them so that people can hear them. It is that drive of feeling that more people would like what I do that keeps driving me to make more music and play it to people. I’ve just been obsessed with it, I don’t know whether it is Canadian or not Canadian because I’ve never really thought about it.

Are there any plans for you to come to the UK and Europe?

Yeah, we’re looking at coming in mid-May and doing a couple of weeks of UK shows. I’m in the middle of getting that together and talking to various promoters. We’ve got a few things lined up, it is just a matter of filling up the rest of it.  So assuming everything goes OK we’ll be over with the band doing what we’ve just done in The Netherlands and Germany with ‘Donlands’ the album, and then play a few things off other albums, a few fan favourites I guess at the end.

How are the Cowboy Junkies?

They’re good, but they lost somebody extremely close, someone I was able to work with, Peter Moore. He produced their first few records, including ‘The Trinity Session’ and he was the mastering engineer on a lot of the albums that came out on the Cowboy Junkies’ label Latent, which I’ve been with for almost ten years now. He mastered the previous four or five records before ‘Donlands’ plus some EPs. I worked with him in his studio on a couple of those albums, and he had a lot of stories, he had great ears and a certain way of doing things which was very much against the grain, hence ‘The Trinity Session’. It felt good when he made some cool comments on some of my songs. I think it is a sad time for them because they worked with him from the very beginning so often.

Apart from that they’ve been playing shows, they are playing here in Toronto next week so I’ll be there at that. Yeah, we’ve had a good relationship with them, especially Mike Timmins who I’ve worked with. Mike Timmins saved my life in a lot of ways, so I owe a lot to him, and he is such a supporter of what I do. He is another guy who is against the grain. We are all in this group, including the Cowboy Junkies, which is not a group or a clique or anything. We are kind of loners in this industry in a lot of ways.

We like to share new music with our readers, so currently, what are your top three tracks, artists or albums on your playlist?

One record I’ve really gone into is from 2018, and Mark Howard worked on it, and I was curious about the recent records he’d worked on,  Courtney Marie Andrews’ ‘May Your Kindness Remain’ is such a great record. The song of the summer for me was ‘Took You Up’ on that record, and I listened to that song over and over again, and I think it is the best song I’ve heard in a long time. It was first around in 2018 but I’m just discovering it now. I’m always picking up older records and I picked up a compilation issued by Numero Group, they find like hidden gems on 45s and I got ‘Basement Beehive’ and it’s got all these girl groups from the early ‘60s, and I’ve been enjoying that a lot. Also, the Cowboy Junkies latest record, ‘Such Ferocious Beauty’, is a great record. I think that it is one of their best records, It is a very heavy album with the content, but it has a lot of strength to it. Like I said, I listen to records all day long. I’m often asked about this and I’ll think of something, then afterwards I’m like, oh that song, this record. It just happens that way.

Oh, Lee Fields. We did two festivals with Lee Fields, and at the first one we were playing at the same time so we missed it, but our last date was a festival Rolling Stone put on and we went a day early to see him. I don’t have any of his albums, but I’m going to change that. I’ve always been aware of him and I’ve heard different songs, and I was dying to see him live and it was an amazing show. So, yeah, I need to catch up by getting some of his records.

Is there anything you want to say to Americana UK readers?

Just that if they’ve been listening and supporting it has been greatly appreciated. I’m going to keep coming back because I love coming over, and I feel a kinship with the people who come to our shows in the UK and Europe, they are fellow music lovers like me and that’s how it started for me, and why I want to do this. I always have a  great time meeting different people at the merch table, people come up and a lot of the time we end up talking about other artists. They will bring up Gene Clark because they know the keys to my heart. We will be talking for half an hour about Gene Clark while people are waiting in line to get a record. I think it is great, and I hope we will just keep building something cool there, and I appreciate Americana UK’s support of my records, and the review of ‘Donlands’. It is always nice to read reviews that are thoughtful and when the person gets what the record is all about, or their interpretation has a great effect. So, thank you.

Jerry Leger’s ‘Donlands’ is out now on Latent.


About Martin Johnson 408 Articles
I've been a music obsessive for more years than I care to admit to. Part of my enjoyment from music comes from discovering new sounds and artists while continuing to explore the roots of American 20th century music that has impacted the whole of world culture.
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