Acclaimed songwriter and performer, Hamilton Leithauser, who rose to popularity in the early 2000s with his stirring rock ‘n’ roll band, The Walkmen, remembers before any of that standing in the Guggenheim Museum with his thoughts. One summer, as a young person, Leithauser worked as a security guard in the New York City museum and, as such, he stood there for countless three-hour shifts. The most effort he put forth then was to occasionally tell a person to stay back from a painting. But the time – before cell phones – forced upon Leithauser many hours to think. With these moments, he composed a handful of songs that would eventually lead him toward more creative successes. Leithauser will release his latest creative endeavor, Live at Café Carlyle, on September 4th.
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“It was the most boring job I’ve ever had,” Leithauser says. “I would stand in a room and stair at paintings and talk in circles and drive myself insane. But six-weeks into that job I was so bored that I started thinking about music very mathematically. I started piecing music together. That’s the way it started for me.”
Leithauser laments the current state of affairs in which he’s not able to focus on work in these same ways. Cell phones, complete with their emails and texts, often prevent Leithauser from having the extended hours on end he needs to focus in the way he once did. Even today, with the world stricken by a global health pandemic, Leithauser still doesn’t have the same freedoms. Today, he says, more than anything, Leithauser particularly misses playing live. He misses the road and sharing moments with fans who know his work. In fact, that’s one of the reasons he decided to release the new intimate live album.
“I had forgotten that I’d recorded one of my shows at the Carlyle,” says Leithauser, who’s enjoyed a standing residency at the prestigious hotel for a few years. “I found it on a hard drive a couple of months ago. That show was supposed to be the beginning of a huge tour for me. I’d be in the middle of it right now, playing all around the world.”
For Leithauser – and, perhaps for many of his fans – the live record is the closest thing they’ll all come to a live show. Speaking about that reality, Leithauser’s voice goes sullen. It approaches hopelessness. He says he doesn’t know when live shows will come back and, in doing so, it almost sounds like Leithauser doesn’t know when his lifeline will return. That is at least somewhat creatively stifling, he says, because if Leithauser doesn’t know when he can tour an LP of new work, he’s not sure how he can muster the verve to produce one.
“You never feel the songs are totally yours until you go play them for people,” he says. “I like playing live. And right now I wish I could have done it more.”
One of Leithauser’s first memories is a live concert. He remembers his father playing in a band when he was a boy. He remembers a chili cook-off in Arlington, Virginia. He remembers later hearing the Rolling Stones on the stereo at home and he remembers buying Michael Jackson’s Thriller with his own lemonade money. In high school, Leithauser played in a band and he was the singer – though, he never felt like a front man. In college, he joined another band and, again, sang. Still, though, Leithauser was shy. But when that band dissolved and he started up The Walkmen in 2000 with four friends, he finally found his groove. He incorporated significant vibrato and vocal inflection when he sang with the group.
“I was born with a loud voice,” he says.
Leithauser, who released his latest solo studio LP, The Loves of Your Life, on April 10th, can still recall the charm and bubbling potential he felt when releasing his first with The Walkmen. When he first thought of himself as a musician, like many before him, he wanted to be like The Beatles. But as his own creativity came into focus, and as the first few records started selling off the shelf of local record stores, he knew his own special thing was beginning. After years of playing to minimal audience members, as The Walkmen put out more songs, people began to line up for gigs.
“When our first record came out, people were singing along at shows,” Leithauser says. “We’d never had that happen before. When you start selling out the show ahead of time and people are buying your record, that’s an incredibly exciting time. It doesn’t get better than that.”
But despite the success and band name recognition, Leithauser decided at one point that he needed new creative challenges. In some ways, he says, he thought The Walkmen had achieved everything they could. So, Leithauser decided to head off solo and pursue new avenues and take new artistic risks. Today, as he follows that instinct, his thirst for creative exploration and finding new sonic territory remains steadfast, whether that be a new song, fan connection, instrument or record release.
“It’s not often,” Leithauser says, “but when you find a new way of looking at the same problem, that can be the most exciting thing in the world. That’s the best part. All of a sudden, you feel like everything is possible.”