October 26, 2010

Dylan LeBlanc: Young Heart, Old Soul

By Jessica Draper

Dylan LeBlanc

The Louisiana native talks creative authenticity, the thrill of collaborating, and the pressures of newfound fame

By Jessica Draper

There's a palpable melancholy in the thick-as-molasses, late-summer air. A chorus of cicadas encroaches on the otherwise still and stagnant quiet of the evening. A ceiling of starry, deep black meets a shock of bruised purple tattooed on the horizon. Just above the hazy silhouette of Southern pine and towering oak, choked by vines of fragrant honeysuckle, a shy, waning moon looks for a place to hide. On the porch, a halo of cigarette smoke crowns a mop of tobacco-colored hair, unmoving, lingering in the breezeless night, wishing to be lifted into the darkness to gossip about whiskey and heartache.

Somewhere, born from this Faulkner-like scene, singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc's songs—cued from both reality and imagination—fit comfortably beside anything the great Southern Gothic writers—Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams and, yes, Faulkner—could scribe. At just 20, LeBlanc has released a collection of songs (via Rough Trade), Pauper's Field, marked by heartbreak and poignant contemplation, as well as a fascinating maturity and narrative gift. An amber-hued, wistful and tastefully sophisticated album, LeBlanc's country-blues lyrical portraits and introspective reflections defy his youth and seep with sincerity.

The son of Muscle Shoals session player and songwriter James LeBlanc, the Louisiana-born talent recently spent an afternoon in conversation with ASCAP, touching on creative authenticity, the thrill of collaborating with Emmylou Harris, the frequent comparisons to Neil Young and Townes Van Zant, and the pressures and expectations of his newfound fame.

Growing up between two different places [Shreveport, La., and Muscle Shoals, Ala.], how do you think that shaped who you are and influenced your music?

I experienced an escape from things that I didn't want to [deal with]. When something was wrong, I could leave and see new things, rather than the same things over and over again. I could drive when things got bad; I was a runner of sorts. When I leave places, I want to leave, so there were a lot of midnight drives.

You can do a lot of thinking that way...

I have done a lot of thinking. That's all I ever do, pretty much, is think. I can hardly pay attention to people when they're talking, because I'm thinking about something 100 percent of the time. My mind won't ever be quiet. I think that happens to a lot of people, though.

During these midnight drives, did you often use that time alone to come up with song ideas or lyrics?

If you ever see my car, it's terrible and disgusting. Everything I own is in there, because I never know where I'm going to go. I don't like being in one spot for too long, so I have all my belongings in my car. I'm scared to take them out, because I'm afraid I'll leave them behind or forget them. My notebook is on the dashboard, and I've almost had a thousand wrecks on I-20 from writing stuff down while driving.

I like to write short stories, just for fun. I write them going down the road, and I also write song lyrics. They always seem to pop up at the most inopportune time. I have to write them down immediately, because I may forget. I just got an iPhone a couple of weeks ago, and it has a "Notes" app. I thought, "This is so cool! I can just use that." I really like using pen and paper, but there's a downside to that, because I always lose the pages. I can't tell you where half of my lyrics are.

There's something very artful about a pen, paper and writing it down...

My punctuation is really bad, and so is my handwriting. I kind of like it, though, because nobody can read my handwriting except me. If I get in a hurry, sometimes I'll leave out a word, and when I read it, it's all jumbled. But somehow, I always somehow figure what I meant.

It's good for privacy, at least...

Yeah, I guess so. I wish I had beautiful handwriting. I wasn't blessed with the gift of ever being able to learn that art. My father has really beautiful handwriting. I tried to copy his but was never able to.

Listening to the record, there's a very notable presence of a Southern Gothic literary influence—echoes of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor and Tennessee Williams. Is that a conscious part or dimension of your writing?

Yeah, I can't really say that I've read a lot of Faulkner stuff, but I always like those kinds of stories. I like to hear people talk about them because it's romantic to me, the whole Southern Gothic thing. I can't really say that I've read a hell of a lot of those authors' books, but I've read some. I like Tennessee Williams a lot. I like his plays and the films that were based on his works. I did read The Rose Tattoo and The Night of the Iguana. I wish I could write like that, but I can't.

Have you read any works by Flannery O'Connor?

I feel like she's another person that was maybe like me, in a sort of way. Before I ever heard about people like [these authors], I always felt like a fish out of water where I was, because people thought I was weird. So I just kind of shut off from those people and didn't want to have anything to do with them. I don't think they wanted to have anything to do with me, either. Where I'm from, everything is so traditional. People get married right after high school. Everyone I ever knew is now married. I didn't stay in school that long, either. I had to get out, because it just wasn't for me. I never did good in school; I made terrible grades. It wasn't because I wasn't smart; I think it was just because I didn't care and didn't try. In my school none of the teachers were caring, really. If you didn't catch on, you would fail their class. I don't like asking for help either, so that was another problem.

In a recent interview, you said, "Music is a feeling, and no kind of education could ever help that. It's either something you can do or you can't."

I do think that education is important. If I have children, I would want them to get a good education. But as far as writing goes, the best thing you can do is educate yourself, live and feel everything you can humanly feel. Anybody can write a song, as long as you are true to yourself and true to people.

One of the things that I've had to get used to over the past few months is how people are constantly sending me these reviews. I don't want to read them, you know? It doesn't bother me, of course—but it does bother me. It scares me that people would ever compare me to writers like Townes Van Zant, because there is no way that I will ever be that good. Or I'm not sure I can live up to that, because that frightens me. I wish people would stop making that comparison. And Ryan Adams, I'm pretty tired of hearing that comparison, too. I don't think I sound anything like Ryan Adams, but there have been a couple of songs of his that I really like. I liked the Heartbreaker record. However, I certainly never wanted to be another Ryan Adams, and I don't want to be another Neil Young, and I really don't want to be another Townes Van Zant, because they're who they are, and I am who I am. I would hope we all think and feel a lot differently about certain things.

Who are some of the songwriters you really respect or feel like they influenced your music in some way?

I think that Hank Williams Sr. is one of the best songwriters to have ever graced our planet. I've never heard many people say, "Damn, he was a really great songwriter," but he really was. Songs like "You Win Again" make me cringe inside. It makes me feel like I knew him when he was still alive and like I was a part of what was going on back then. I've always believed every word he sang. A person like him is what influences me more than anything: They make you hurt and make you understand, but they also help you gain better perspective on a situation. I've always enjoyed—what's the word—conviction. When someone bears a cross, everybody naturally gravitates toward what they relate to.

Hank Sr. exposed everything in his songs.

There was no stone left unturned.

Do you think that element of transparency aligns with what you were saying about participating in music as a creator? Is it the passion, conviction and creative authenticity that you put into your music that defines its "soul?"

Yeah, I think that's important. I don't think I've been thoughtfully aware of these ideas when I write, but I've always felt something. A lot of it is just stream of consciousness, I'm sure. There are so many things that are subconscious. The way somebody explained it to me is that our subconscious thoughts are all potential energy. It sounds crazy, but it's all the energy that's stored up in an object or system. Your emotions have potential energy, so it doesn't matter how long that you leave them there or let them build up. They will eventually fall, and that force is going to be as strong as the "height" they were once falling from. So I feel like when I write, I'm letting that potential energy go. And it feels good to do that.

Is that emotional release a form of self-expression for you?

Yeah, it's definitely a release. I would hate for people to get the wrong idea, though, and think I sat around and pitied myself all day long, because that's certainly not what I do. I'm just a person, and everybody has their outlet just to make it through the day.

Since you signed your record deal and are doing all this promotion around the record, how has that changed things for you? Is it affecting your creativity?

It frightens me, actually, because now I know there are a lot of people who might hear me. Or rather, there will be a lot of people who hear me and may judge me, which I don't like, but that's inevitable. And [the prospect of being judged] is always really frightening, but I have to constantly remind myself that it doesn't matter. That's made me less vulnerable as a songwriter to write those kinds of songs.

Just recently—within the last month or two—I started writing every day. I'm trying to get songs together for the next record, because I definitely want it to be better than the first. Honestly, I don't know how good this first record is. I feel like I still have too much work I need to do, and that's what drives me to go on. I'm not where I'd like to be. I feel like I haven't made anything all that special yet, so I want to make something that's special for me. You have to remember if you do it for other people, it's not worth it; you have to do things for yourself. It's like loving yourself, which I have yet to master the art of, as well.

I want to make something good. Every artist is trying to do better than what they've done before, and I set a standard for myself. Sometimes I get so frustrated and worried when a song just isn't there, because I want to whole song to be so good and perfectly constructed. Eventually, if you sit there long enough, it will happen. Yet I get so many different ideas at the same time, I have to write a song like 30 times before I actually feel comfortable with it and it feels good to me.

You said you were in limbo about how you feel about this record. What has you on the fence?

I'm the kind of person who has to listen to something many, many times after I record it. I will listen 300 different times in 300 different ways and try to absorb every little thing that's going on. Most of the time I do that, and then I never want to hear it again. Now I'm in the process of having to play these songs live, learning how to appreciate them and learning how to give people the best performance I can. It means a lot to me when anybody likes my music, and it means an awful lot when people come out to shows. It's a phenomenon, honestly, when people like your music. It's so flattering, and it's everything that you work for. So getting over that threshold of being tired of this album has been an extremely different process and a learning experience, because I don't have room to be tired of it right now.

Is there any song that is particularly meaningful or important to you?

They're all kind of important to me. I don't have one song I really like better than the others, because I'm kind of tired of them all. However, if I hadn't written these songs, I wouldn't skip "If Time Was Wasting" or "The Creek Don't Rise." I also wouldn't skip "Emma Hartley," "Coyote Creek" or "The Death of Outlaw Billy John." I like "No Kind of Forgiveness," too; that one is pretty cool.

Somehow I must have little bits of my life in every story or song. It seems to come out of nowhere, but, for instance, the second line in "No Kind of Forgiveness" is a reference to this thing that happened to me. In my mind, I pictured a scenario based on that experience, and then I wrote it. In the song I killed this guy, but the law came after me, so I had to leave. I don't know why, but it was this kind of angry, psycho thing. Anyway, I definitely use my imagination.

I've always had this weird connection with God and have always felt like I've made so many mistakes. I get frightened and think I'm going to get in really big trouble one of these days for something. My guilt factor is all screwed up. I feel guilty and ashamed about a lot of things.

What was it like working with Emmylou Harris?

She's one of my favorites, so it's always been a dream for me to work with her. After she came into the studio [to add vocals to "The Creek Don't Rise], I thought, "I can die peacefully." Initially, it was really awkward, because I really expected her to be totally different than what she was. We always expect more out of people who we admire than what they really are, but she pretty much lived up to every potential. Then you realize they're just people like me and you, and you have to deal with that.

She came in and told me, "Feel free to tell me if this vocal isn't good for you, or if I'm not doing a good job." I was just sitting there thinking, "What the fuck? You're Emmylou Harris!" Like I'm going to say, "Um, no, that's terrible." I actually got to work with her, and it was really cool. She's a serious lady, and a really deep, soulful woman. I want to marry her right now. I mean, for real, I would. I've got a big crush on Emmylou (laughs). She's really sweet, but I definitely felt an energy coming off of her that was pretty strong. I like intense, very serious people, and she's definitely one of those people and has a lot of depth to her. It's everything she doesn't say that makes her energy so powerful.

And you had Trina Shoemaker mix the album?

Yeah, she's so sweet! I'll tell you a little story about Trina. She had a chart for all of my songs, rated one through five. They were listed according to which ones were good and which ones she liked. At first, I thought, "What the hell?" She would just come out and say, "I'll tell you what I like or don't like about this song..." She was really stern and matter-of-fact. But you could tell that she had been put through so much bullshit throughout her career that she's prepared for just about anything. Once she realized that I wasn't that kind of person, that's when it was just her and me, and we got to spend some time together. I would go over to her studio every day, and we started making this unbelievable connection. I told her from the start, "Don't make this sound too slick." I'd argue with her about it, but it was a really cool process. Then we started bonding, and I feel like she's my big sister now, or something. She's a very strong and powerful individual, and I like that. That's how the women in my family are. It's easy for me if they're kind of tough and like (snaps) "Let's get this shit done."

Is there any kind of wisdom that she imparted?

She mothers me. I swear to God, I don't think she can help it. It got to the point where it was like working with one of my parents. She's a true artist and an extremely intelligent individual. We were sitting on her back porch smoking cigarettes once, and she was telling me all about her experiences and being a woman in the music business. She's rock ‘n' roll and everything that stands for it. She's the real deal, and she makes great records. We tracked some songs over that were just awesome. I think I'm going to do the next record with just her at [her studio] the Big Red Barn, which would be fun. We're enough alike that it feels really comfortable to say and do the things that I want to do. I have to be around people that I can trust—people who understand me, and I understand them.

It's such a grueling process to make a record anyway...

It's a lot of fun though, if you make it that way. Like when you come out with something good, there's not a better feeling. I have not felt anything like it. It's the most gratifying thing I've ever done in my life, when I personally like it. I never do anything I don't like. I always look at it as what really makes me tick and what I do.

How does it make you feel to know there are people who find a real connection to or parallel understanding of your lyrics and songs?

It means a lot to me when people say that, because I'm always wondering what people think. So when people say they find value in the music, it makes me feel better and like maybe it is good. It's definitely not for everybody, but I like it. I'm proud of it for what it is. And now I'm ready to make another record.

I also think rhythm and the way a song moves has a lot to do with connection, even more so than the lyrics. I related a song that the lyrics didn't have anything to do with my situation, but the song moved so well, like "The End of the World" by Skeeter Davis. I remember listening to that when I was a kid and thinking the way it moved was awesome. I like the way all old country stuff moves. I wish people made records like that to this day.

What are some of those records you're talking about?

Ray Charles' Crying Time is one of my favorite albums. I listen to it every Christmas by myself at my house with a bottle of wine. There's just something about Ray Charles that gets me. I love the strings in the background. I just love the way he sings that shit, man. I love everything about that kind of music; it's real. I love me some Ray Charles and wish I could've met him before he died.

George Jones' Cold Hard Truth record was a good one. I love the song choices. In fact, I did an acoustic show the day of my release of the record at this old bar in Shreveport. It's so funny because hardly anybody knows who I am down there. It was just me at an old bar with an acoustic guitar, and I played that song. It's really funny to see people be quiet during "Cold Hard Truth," because it's such a damn good song.

What was the significance in naming your album Pauper's Field?

Like I said before, so many of my songs are things of the past that happened to me, and they're all collected. In my album, I have all these characters who are about to escape from all of the problems that I was having—issues with women and girls. I'm really young, and that's the funny thing: I hate being alone, but I'm alone all of the time. I always reach out for people, and they always... I've noticed the more I reach out for people, the more they kind of back away, especially the women in my life. I never know if it's because I'm not handsome enough or too self-destructive or not romantic enough. I've always thought that there was just something wrong with me, because I tried to do everything I could to get them to stay interested, but in the end I never could. I've never been able to do that. That's one thing I've always struggled with, so I've spent an awful lot of time alone. Every time I come home, I always think it would be awesome to have a girlfriend to come home with me. I think about that a lot. Then I know I've spent much of my time—most of my life—by myself, doing my own thing. So because of that, I wonder if I can even be in a relationship. I feel like an old man sometimes, and I don't really know what that's about. All I know is what I feel.