Walking Alone: Hamilton Leithauser On Writing For Himself

Hamilton Leithauser
Hamilton Leithauser, the former lead singer of the Walkmen, played his forthcoming solo debut, Black Hours (Ribbon Music) from start to finish at Joe’s Pub in Manhattan.

Getting on the actual stage entailed some strategizing. At least fourteen instruments were crammed up there: violins, cellos, brass, an upright bass, piano, backup singers (one of whom was his wife, Anna Stumpf), guitar, drums, and quite possibly more. It appeared like the trust-building exercise where twenty people impossibly fit on one small plank of wood. Mr. Leithauser craned over them all in the center.

Before the show, the mild-mannered singer was swilling lemon tea; concerned he would blow his voice on the second of two New York shows.

Mr. Leithauser lives in Brooklyn with his wife and their two daughters, one three years old and the other three months old. The elder was dancing around at sound check to “Alexandra.” “That’s all she wants to hear,” he said with a weary grin.

Whether three or thirty-three, it’s hard to resist “Alexandra”: the effusive, alternative rock song from Black Hours. It bears the unmistakable lilt of Vampire Weekend, thanks to Rostam Batmanglij, who co-wrote and produced the album. The driving pop/rock diversifies from the other brooding songs and the repetition keeps Mr. Leithauser’s meandering vocal in check.

Backstage, Mr. Leithauser spoke with American Songwriter about why Frank Sinatra inspired him to go solo and why this isn’t necessarily his most personal album ever (and why that doesn’t matter).

Are you fussy about the way words sound?

Yes. I’m very fussy. But you know, on this record there isn’t really one of those songs that I had a difficult time with. I’ve had those in the past. On our last record, on Heaven, “We Can’t Be Beat” had kind of strange words at the beginning. The words had come from another song and I was trying hard to stick them in. I don’t think I got it.

Do you find yourself gravitating back to certain words?

I do find that, and I try not to. I’ll always have a line that’s followed by the word “dream.” And I always think, “You’ve got to get rid of that word ‘dream’ again”. I always fall into that trap. It’s always dream this, dream that. Maybe it’s the Roy Orbison in me.

I’m asking because your uncle recently wrote a New Yorker piece about what it means when writers repeat certain words. He was also my professor in college.

That sounds interesting. I haven’t read that. Did you like him as a professor?

I did. One day he asked if anyone knew of the ‘The Walkmen’. I think you were touring with Spoon at the time.

He just asked that to the class, literally? [Laughs].

Yeah!

That’s funny. Well, I try not to repeat words. That said my new album has these big choruses and words that repeat like “Alexandra.” The repetition gives the song a little bit of weight. When I was writing it, I didn’t expect to have a song called “Alexandra,” because I don’t know ‘Alexandra’. But I thought you could just say the name a bunch of times, and now that song has personality. Or “You and Me and Everybody Else”. I thought that sounded just like, exciting.

Did you give yourself more freedom – or forgiveness, rather – on Black Hours?

Maybe. It felt freeing to know the songs were mine from start to finish. I still am writing with other people, which I really enjoy doing. A lot of great ideas came from Paul Maroon (the Walkmen guitarist) and Rostam Batmanglij (Vampire Weekend), my friend.

What was the most challenging part of working with both of them?

They both have very strong personalities. I only put them in the same room one time. I never did it again [laughs].

Rostam wanted to go in a rock direction and you did not.

At the very beginning, that’s how it was. He was adding all these drums on every song and I’m listening, thinking, ‘I’ve been in a rock band, I just left a rock band, I don’t need another rock record.’ And then we did “I Retired” and I was like this is fun. It doesn’t sound like rock and roll, it sounds like new rock and roll.

“5 AM” is way different from what you’ve done before and it begins the album. Where did it come from?

The beginning of “5 AM” was a guitar line that Paul had. I got one of those midi keyboards where you can fake the strings, which are pretty great. I remember thinking: I can sing this line and the strings are going to do this, or I’m going to sing louder and the strings are going to get louder. I added some bass and drums and that was the song. It was all very inspired by Frank Sinatra’s September Of My Years and In The Wee Small Hours, but it’s very new for me.

Are you fan of big band music?

In a way, I always wondered, ‘Am I ever going to be able to write music like that? Am I old enough to write music like that?’ I’ve always done rock and roll and I love it, but in the back of your head you think could I ever do that? Could I orchestrate something that complex?

What about Sinatra most surprises you?

How much he was hated. He sort of had two careers. He had his music career as a kid star and then when WWII came around and he was ineligible for the draft, he was really hated. He really fell out of favor. And then he had like six years of slumming it before starring in From Here To Eternity. He won an Oscar and then he started making all the records that you know. He really had to fight his way back in.

Black Hours is dubbed your ‘most personal record’, which is what everyone says about everyone’s first solo record. But humor me: what is true and false about this being your most personal work?

It’s false because I did get a lot of ideas from Rostam and Paul [Maroon] [laughs]. But the knowledge that it was my name from the beginning made it personal. In the later days of the Walkmen, I was just sitting in a room writing songs. Now I’m sitting in a room writing songs, but now I’m not going to take it into a room with my own gang and know that my idea is going to get maybe better but most likely trampled on. Now I just know: this is my song.

Leave a Reply

Video Premiere: Jeremy and The Harlequins, “White Star Bright Love”

Album Premiere: The Bones of J.R. Jones, Dark Was the Yearling