HAILED AS the next Neil Young, singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc crafts shadowy songs of confession and vulnerability laced with striking imagery and beautiful textures.
As a kid growing up in Muscle Shoals, Alabama—that mystical musical hotbed tucked off the coast of the Tennessee River whose FAME Studios has turned out albums by Aretha Franklin, The Rolling Stones, The Allman Brothers, and many more—LeBlanc watched as his father made a career as a singer-songwriter.
By 15, LeBlanc was playing gigs of his own in the alt-rock band Jimmy Sad Eyes Blue; the project hit “pause” when young LeBlanc was forced to enter rehab. He emerged from treatment ready to play music full-time, writing his own material and landing a deal with the U.K.’s Rough Trade Records.
At just 23, LeBlanc had already lived a musician’s lifetime: struggles with alcoholism led to an Alabama return. Back in Muscle Shoals, he wrote through withdrawals and created a stunning new album, Cautionary Tale. Murky like the marsh with gossamer touches like the light’s reflection off the Alabama water, the album shows now-26-year-old LeBlanc at his best.
Recorded with long-time friends Ben Tanner, touring keyboardist for Alabama Shakes, and Grammy-winning John Paul White, formerly of The Civil Wars, Cautionary Tale is the perfect balance of minimal, roots-inspired songwriting and delicately layered production.
We spoke with LeBlanc about his writing and recording process, his first songs, and finding guidance within art.
You’ve been touring Cautionary Tale all year. Are you still enjoying being out on the road?
Of course! I love doing what I get to do, getting the opportunity to do it. And I love to play as much as I can, always.
With The Pollies as your backing band, do you treat the live show differently than your studio recording?
Yeah, they're more of a rock 'n' roll band, so the show is a little more upbeat than the record. It's more of a high-energy rock 'n' roll show. It's more fun for the people, as well, and gets them pumped up.
Cautionary Tale has that foreboding, Louisiana swamp drip sound about it. Did growing up in the South influenced you in terms of sounds and textures?
I think probably so. Can't help but sort of do that when you grow up like I did, surrounded by lots of music. Where I'm from has definitely influenced me.
Your father was a musician in Muscle Shoals, right?
He was, and he was a player and a songwriter, spent a lot of time in Nashville co-writing songs with people, writing country music. Country music was a big part of my life growing up. George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens were all our favorites.
You were playing at an early age. Did you envision a career in music?
I always wanted to make a career for myself, a life of writing songs.
Do you remember the first song you write that was that 'click,' 'I-can-do-this' moment?
I remember the first good song I wrote that my friends thought was good. I think it was called 'The Battle' or something like that, and it was about a family feud. That's when I realized I could tell stories and put them in songs. I remember my dad saying, 'That's a good song.' That made me feel like I could write more good ones.
You're a fiction writer as well—is that a different process for you?
Song are so subconscious. Sometimes they don't have a direct message. Sometimes stories are like that, too; I tell the stories, sometimes I tell the songs more to describe how things feel than they actually are. I think that when you're writing stories, you're doing a bit of trying to describe the feelings and images at the same time. Writing songs and stories isn't all that different.
You went through a bit of a songwriting dry spell. What got you back into it?
My second record didn't do that well and I was really bummed out. I said, 'I'm going to get a real job and try to work.' I quite writing for a while. I write songs in my head, always, and I missed it a lot. I went to try to make a record and I owed my record label another album; I took my time doing it.
You did those two albums through Rough Trade—[Cautionary Tale] is your first proper American release. How have you seen that impact you?
I'm definitely seeing more fans from here in the homeland. It's better touring in America than before. Before, I'd book a tour here and two people would show up. Now I feel like I'm getting people out to shows. I wouldn't say I'm selling out shows every night, but I'm seeing new faces and people coming to the shows who didn't before. It's definitely a step up in my career. You want to do well in your homeland.
Was your approach to recording Cautionary Tale different than your previous efforts? What did you have in mind?
I wanted it to be more upbeat. I never worked with producers before—that was a new thing for me, to give it up to somebody else, give them control, let them paint their picture with songs I'd written, which is what they did and it was really cool. I wanted it to sound like it was from 1971, because I love that era of music. We cut it analog, we did a whole lot of things that were different on this record. It's good to push and try to make you better as a player.
Was it difficult giving up that control to producers?
It was hard to do. I like to drench my voice in reverb, and it was the first time I've ever sung without tons of reverb on my voice. I hated it—it was so bare. I've always been very self-conscious about my voice as a singer, so that was hard.
I wanted to put a lot more instruments on the songs—that was hard—but it was interesting and fun listening to them and their point of view. They wanted the music to revolve around the songs and not have the songs revolve around the music. Words are important. John Paul White is a songwriter, that's what he does, and he made a point to make the music work for the songs.
You, John, and Ben [Tanner] have known each other forever, right?
Yeah, John and my father were co-writers together. I met him years before he had ever done The Civil Wars thing and become famous or whatever. I always liked him, and he was always kind of darker. My style's darker, so I thought he'd be a great person to work with.
You've said that a lot of these songs are about finding solutions within. Does songwriting help you through that personally?
I definitely think it gives me a feeling of productivity. I feel most productive when I'm writing songs I like, songs I would like to hear. Everything's been written before; you can't help but regurgitate what's been done, but you can do your take on it. I feel I'm being most productive and feel my best about myself when I'm working and producing music. It makes me feel like I'm doing something I'm supposed to be doing.
As far as finding solutions, I don't think songwriting helps me do that. I think I have to do that on my own, then I can write about it. And I think it does help me write songs.