It Ain’t That Heavy: A Q&A With Dylan LeBlanc

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Dylan LeBlanc’s sophomore album, Cast The Same Old Shadow, is something the 22-year-old songwriter was already talking about on the eve of his Rough Trade Records debut, Pauper’s Field, in 2010. LeBlanc says he felt his first album was too straightforward and knew he wanted to go in a different direction for its follow-up.

Recording for Cast The Same Old Shadow started at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in December 2010, with co-producer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow, Emmylou Harris), who mixed Pauper’s Field, and went through the end of 2011, finishing up in New Orleans.

One of the striking differences in the new album is its use of big cinematic string synth parts, played on Mellotron by Alabama Shakes’ touring member, Ben Tanner. The standout track is “Brother,” a song that wraps you up in its big arms and takes you on an epic journey through light and dark a la Led Zeppelin.

Cast The Same Old Shadow has more movement in its chord progressions and melodies than LeBlanc’s debut. But as on Pauper’s Field, his gift is for coming up with songs that reference classic country and soul without ever falling back on typical songwriting tropes. He also has one of the most amazing voices in music today.

Here, LeBlanc tells us what he learned from his grandfather, why his new album is more challenging, and why “Jackson” is his favorite Lucinda Williams song.

Cast The Same Old Shadow has a quite different sound than Pauper’s Field. How did you go about writing this record?

I realized that Pauper’s Field was such a straightforward album. When I was touring behind it I would find myself getting kind of bored. So I made it a conscious effort to write chord progressions that are more interesting and a little bit more challenging to play live. I didn’t want to make the same record twice.

It has a real cinematic quality. What were you listening to leading up to this record?

I started watching the old spaghetti westerns and Sergio Leone and Italian music. I bought the Ennio Morricone soundtrack to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. I was listening to that every night. I was listening to jazz music. I found it interesting and inspiring. That kind of dotted my way into more cinematic things.

“Part One: The End” is a song you heard in a dream. Did that song set the tone for the album?

It was the first song I wrote for this new album. It was the theme music in this dream I had. I remember waking up and thinking it was really pretty. I had to find out how to pick it out on my guitar. I grabbed my guitar and sat on the porch and tried to figure out how to play it—tried to remember all of it. I got as close as possible. I thought it was the direction I wanted to go on this album. I wanted to write more songs like this.

The album is pretty dark sonically. Do you think the lyrics share in that same darkness?

It’s more [about the idea that] the more you experience, the more you wise up to things. [It’s about] the fight to be inspired, the fight to be within yourself. Just to wake up and be glad to be alive. That should be inspiring enough. [It’s about] why you have to struggle just to enjoy your life. I constantly think too much. I think the less we think about stuff [the better]—like jumping out of an airplane. Don’t think about it, just do it.

“Where Are You Now” seems to look back on some events in your life. Is this a very personal record for you?

I can’t remember who said it but someone said we’re not humans having a soul’s experience we’re souls having a human experience. [Ed.: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.” – Teilhard de Chardin.] I was just trying my best to do some soul-searching—as funny and cliché as that sounds. I was dating a girl and I was crazy about her. I know it sounds cliché, but I was destroying myself. It was hard for her to watch me. She was generally a happy person. I loved that about her. But I couldn’t get my head together. That’s why I wrote, “Where are you now little darling? Did you cast out the bad in your life?” I think she needed to cast out the bad in her life. It was heartbreaking but I just wanted to let her know in that song that I understood why.

Have you changed since then?

Lately, I’ve been way happier. I’ve been feeling a lot better. [I’m] grateful to be alive. It’s really a choice. You’re always searching for something to make you happy. But you gotta learn to wake up and enjoy yourself. These last couple years it’s been good life teachings. When you’re young you think you’ve got it all figured out, but you realize no one’s got it all figured out. I think I was a little bit arrogant and I wasn’t really looking for help. I wanted to soak in self-pity and I was enjoying it, which is kind of messed up. It got to the place where I couldn’t get out of the house. I had to take a step back and go, “Dylan, you gotta chill out, it ain’t that heavy.”

You have two songs—“Chesapeake Lane” from the new album and “Fifth Avenue Bar” from Pauper’s Field—where it’s an older person looking back on life, giving advice to a younger person. Do you think about that a lot?

When I was young I talked to my granddad a lot, because I stayed with him a lot. He was one of those guys who was constantly giving me advice. He’d lived a lot and been through a lot. One night I came to his house and I was rail thin. And he said, “Son, I’m gonna tell you this and I don’t want you to take it the wrong way. Whiskey is not nutritious.” I started laughing. He said shit like that all the time.

He was one of my heroes. He was in the Army—101st Airborne—stationed in Ft. Campbell, Kentucky, went to flight school, jumped out of an airplane. He was kind of a thrill seeker. He drank a lot in his younger years. But he was a total Southern gentleman. If there is such a thing as a Southern gentleman, I think he’d be the epitome of it.

Growing up with him, we’d drink coffee and talk in the morning. I think that helped me get inside an older person’s head—the way they look out on life. I hold those experiences close because those were important moments in my younger life. I used to make him tell the same stories over and over.

You toured with Lucinda Williams last year. What are your favorite songs of hers?

I love “Jackson,” just because it reminds me of when I was growing up I used to drive from Shreveport to Alabama. When I was 16, I used to drive back and forth. You constantly feel like you’re missing someone ‘cause you’re gone a long time. She talks about every place I used to pass through.

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