The former frontman of The Walkmen struggled with writing lyrics for his latest album, before realizing it would be "dangerous and fun to write about people I know.”
If there is one person besides Hamilton Leithauser who deserves credit for the direction of his new album -- a collection of musical short stories called The Loves of Your Life, it’s the stranger that he encountered one morning on the 9 a.m. cross-sound ferry between New London, Conn. and Orient Point, NY.
“I was with my daughters, and I met this odd fellow,” Leithauser recalls. “He was sitting there at the bar, enjoying the ride, having a drink in the early morning – not messy, sort of put-together – and he just came up and started talking to me and my girls.”
The conversation wasn’t particularly interesting, but after Leithauser and his daughters reached their destination, he couldn’t stop thinking about the guy. “I realized that he didn’t get on with us, and he didn’t get off with us,” he says. “He probably came from New London at 7:00 a.m., and who’s to say he hadn’t come from Orient Point at 5:00 a.m., or New London at midnight?”
“I started thinking why was he there -- and what is his motivation?” Leithauser adds. “And because he was this quiet, neat guy, I thought it might be funny to write a loud banger about all of the emotions that might be swirling through his head.”
The encounter came at a good time. A couple years earlier, Leithauser, a Washington, D.C. native who has lived in New York since 1998, had built a cramped studio for himself that he dubbed The Struggle Hut, at his Brooklyn home. He had since written most of the music that would become The Loves of Your Life -- and Paul Maroon, his former bandmate from The Walkmen, with whom he still collaborates, had sent him great stuff as well. But the lyrics weren’t coming.
“I was striking out right and left,” says Leithauser, who tends to write lyrics spontaneously as he listens to an instrumental track. “There was a moment where I was going to hand off the music to someone else and say, ‘Maybe you can make a record out of this.’”
The guy on the ferry changed all that. “I had this big banging guitar track that Paul had sent me. I turned it into a waltz and then I switched the tempo so that it had a happy-go-lucky dancing-while-walking-down-the-street-beginning,” he says. “I wanted to show that there was a real guy there. He could have been just another forgotten personality, but something about him -- I was rooting for this guy.”
The result is the fourth cut on The Loves of Your Life, “Cross-Sound Ferry (Walk-On Ticket),” a jaunty Jon Batiste piano-driven number with a melancholy undercurrent that tells the story a father of two grown daughters staving off loneliness by riding the ferry as if it were an endless seafaring carousel.
“That was when it struck me -- going in this direction could be fun,” says Leithauser, who turns 42 on April 15. He wasn’t exactly new to narrative songwriting. His 2016 album with Rostam Batmanglij, I Had A Dream That You Were Mine -- which saw “A 1000 Times” become an indie playlist staple and “In A Blackout” used for an iPhone commercial -- included “The Bride’s Dad,” the poignant tale of an absentee father toasting his daughter after crashing her wedding.
“Every bit of that song is true,” Leithauser swears -- but in writing “Cross-Sound Ferry,” he realized that it was more rewarding to imagine the stories behind the strangers he was encountering. And then, he says, “I thought what might be really dangerous and fun would be to write about people I know.” Despite an “oh-s--t moment where I thought I should maybe stay away from this, I decided to give it a whirl."
It’s a good thing he did. If I Had A Dream That You Were Mine was a (quasi-) solo breakthrough for Leithauser, The Loves of Your Life is the album in which he has found himself musically and lyrically. It’s his Rain Dogs -- not that he sounds like Tom Waits, but like Waits, he's an ostensible "rock" artist whose musical style is too eclectic to be pigeonholed so simply. The Loves of Your Life employs horns, woodwinds, pedal steel, piano and stand-up bass -- as well as the back-up vocals of Leithauser's daughters, who are 6 and 8, and even their pre-school teacher, Lachrisha Brown.
Leithauser is also a fine storyteller, with a style somewhere between Randy Newman (one of his musical heroes) and an urban John Cheever. His lyrics are studded with spare, searing and sometimes surreal images that lodge in the brain. In the album’s opener, “The Garbage Men,” wishbones snap, light bulbs smash, a woman chews her nails and spits them into the swimming pool, and “All the playboys dance/ On the blacktop/ Like a swarm of flies.”
And then there's the voice. Leithauser's is unique; able to go from low-register rumble to high-volume heavy-metal croon in a way that sounds controlled but never canned. “That’s my calling card,” he says, by phone from a house in the country where he and his family have holed up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The tour he was planning behind the album has been shelved for the time being, giving him some time to talk to Billboard about The Loves of Your Life, his creative process, his annual residencies at The Carlyle Hotel in New York City -- and Bill Murray, who tends to show up when Leithauser plays there.
You have said that all of the songs on The Loves of Your Life were written about people that you know. Tell me a little bit about these people.
It might strike people as kind of weird or maybe insensitive, but I only did it as a compliment to the people that I’ve met and people that I know or have known in the past.
Do the people you actually know know that you have written songs about them?
As of now, no. I changed names, I changed details, but it’s all pretty truthful. And I embellished the stories -- it doesn’t all have to be true. I don’t think I’ll have any really awkward moments. I was really careful.
Speaking of people you know, how many of these songs are about you?
I kind of wonder if they are all about me on some level. You remember somebody through the way they affected you and in what you found interesting about them.
Reality is a function of your perception.
Right. The older I get I find that it’s more powerful to focus on a tiny memory of something that somebody did and why you’re remembering that -- what about that detail affects your whole impression of that person.
How did you arrive at the album’s title?
It’s a line from [album closer] “The Old King,” which is the first song I wrote about somebody that I actually knew. I thought that the title worked for the whole record because it’s trying to capture everybody’s motivation. What makes people tick.
I understand you are a big Randy Newman fan. Why does he resonate with you?
The things that grab me the most are the characters he puts in his songs. I was listening to all of Trouble in Paradise and all of Good Old Boys the other day, and he’s got so many unlikable guys that say so many racist and sexist things. I don’t even know if you could get away with it in this day. They are funny, nasty people, and he sings from a first-person perspective. But when he sings “Sail Away” about a slaver, that song is complicated and so powerful. It has a patriotic message behind it like “Born in the USA.” It’s incredible.
Your lyrics remind me a bit of John Cheever's writing, if Cheever had written about the city instead of the suburbs.
I love Cheever. I was reading Goodbye, My Brother -- it’s a story about a troubled brother that comes home -- and it ends with [the narrator] watching his wife and her sister emerging naked from the ocean. Apparently, he wrote the story because he thought that would be a great ending to a story. So, he wrote the whole story just to get to the ending. That resonates with me because I will remember one detail about a person or one line that they said and think, that’s why that guy and I had all this trouble. That was the one moment why everything went sour – and just base the song around that.
The album really exudes New York City energy.
Well, that’s awesome. I’ve lived in New York since 1998 -- more than half my life – and I’m writing about people I know and people I’ve met.
How was The Struggle Hut born?
For like 20 years I had just these hole-in-the wall practice spaces -- always with a heavy metal drummer next door, and you’re at least 50 yards from the nearest window. It was hell. My last one was, amazingly, back in the same building where I had my first one, a hideous basement in the depths of [Brooklyn neighborhood] DUMBO. I’m not really that loud when I’m sitting there writing music and there was some drummer just pounding away next door. I was like, I can’t do this anymore.
The sound of The Loves of Your Life is very eclectic. You’ve got what reminds me of a Sicilian funeral horn on the first track, barroom piano, pedal steel and great choral arrangements. How did you arrive at that sound?
It took a really long time to get my sound together. I play almost everything, the guitar and a little piano. But then I was like, I wish I could get somebody who could really play the piano. So I got John Batiste. I also got a horn player and a pedal steel player for the stuff that I just couldn’t hack. Figuring out your own sound -- your own personality -- is the hardest part, especially once you get sort of accomplished. You are like, "Well, I could go in any direction here. I could make a big rock sound or something intimate -- nylon string guitar and vocals." The options are so open that kind of creates the biggest problem. It’s just terrifying.
How did you get Jon Batiste?
I met him through friends. He’s an awesome dude. There’s a song that I couldn’t finish where he kicked so much ass. It was this six-and-a-half-minute opener for the record, and I had Stuart Bogie, this great sax player, and Jon Batiste playing this, like, three-and-a-half-minute instrumental section at the beginning. I still have it and hopefully can release it someday. I think it would have changed the tone of the record. It wasn’t meant to be.
How long did it take you to do this album?
Three and a half years. There was a lot of time where I was struggling and not getting anything done. I went through some pretty tough times thinking I didn’t want to do it anymore. I would look back on what I had created and think, "I’m not into any of this stuff." And you don’t know if you’re just getting older and it’s harder to get excited about anything or, you know, what’s different? Why doesn’t this rock my boat?
But I keep a very regular schedule and I work a lot. And I always have gotten to a moment where I think, "Wait, that’s a good idea." And that’s where I get going.
Was that the moment on the cross-sound ferry?
It was after. It was when I thought about that guy like a week later. I was like, I wonder what that guy was doing on there. I was sweeping the house or whatever. And then I thought you know he was talking about his daughters. They left, and he probably has nowhere to go. Maybe he just like lives there. And then I thought I’m going to try to write a song about it.
The first version I did of that song -- before it became the big rock song that it is -- I did it as a slow waltz, a Pogues sounding kind of ballad. It was just so depressing. I listened to it, and I was like man this is so sad. But that was the fun of the record: I had written about a personality and now I had to match that personality with the music. It was a macro way of doing things that I had never done before.
I think that’s how Bruce Springsteen worked. I’m realizing this right now, but I remember him saying that he would add huge verses and take away huge verses, then make it fast and make it slow -- try to figure out the final combination, the personality, that he liked. I had never worked with like that.
You collaborated on some songs with Paul Maroon on this album. Why has that relationship endured?
We have always worked well together. We have a really good, like, writing assembly line. He lives in Baltimore, so we don’t see each other very often, but he writes a lot of instrumental music and soundtrack stuff and he’ll send me something every once in a while. So, for this one I had a huge inbox of emails from him. It’s a great resource when I’m just playing around and I’m sick of my own stuff. I know I can always go there and find something interesting from him. Like five of the songs on this record started with things that he sent me.
Have you ever talked about doing a Walkmen reunion?
We haven’t. I don’t know if that’s in the cards for us. Maybe someday but not right now. We had a really good run and went out when we were kind of at the top of our game. And we’d be doing it for a long time before The Walkmen too. We had other bands and careers, so it time to work separately. It seems like everybody has got a pretty good thing going now actually so I think we’re going to keep it separate for a while.
Your voice has developed quite a bit since The Walkmen. How did you arrive at the vocal style that defines your work now?
That’s my calling card. I don’t even know how you describe it, but it’s a fun thing to control and to use in different ways. The Walkmen were a very loud band. We had our nuances certainly, but a lot of the time when we had band practice, it was three of us in the room writing very loud stuff and I found myself singing in one register because to match the guitar and the ride cymbal. It was rock and roll that we were making -- it’s hard to develop nuanced vocals in that situation. You kind of get on a streak of doing one range for longer. I think if you went on Spotify, our most played songs would be those kinds of things.
When I am by myself, I spend a lot of time working on vocals, and you can work it to death sometimes. It’s great to have somebody there to tell you, “You sang that better the first time when you kind of choked a little bit than when you got it perfect 6,000 takes later." I really know the sound of my voice well. Sometimes I know it too well. It’s good to be able to control it. I get into singing. I like it more than I used to.
When you played the Carlyle early this year, your wife Anna Stumpf was on keyboards and your daughter’s preschool teacher Lacrisha Brown was singing back-up.
Yup. She sings on at least half the record too.
Your daughters are on the record as well. I don’t think they were there that night.
Georgiana and Cokie. They were in the audience two nights, but I don’t know. They’re on the record too. They’ve got such sweet little voices. It’s kind of handy to have them around.
Do you use your family and close friends for convenience or is that something that actually you like to do as an artist?
I like getting my own gang, and that’s my real world. I have my touring band of guys I love that I’ve met in bands over all the years, and they are going to come back on tour with me whenever my tour gets rescheduled. But when I’m in New York, whoever is there, that’s my New York gang: Lacrisha, Anna; and Sky [Skjelset], who is founder of The Fleet Foxes. He's one of my best friends, so when the Fleet Foxes aren’t on tour, I love having him come up. I’m lucky to have them around and able to play with me.
At the Carlyle, you performed Big Thief's "Not" on the night I saw you. In terms of New York’s music community are you close with Adrianne Lenker or any other artists?
It used to be much more so. All the bands in New York left. I saw Rostam the other day. In New York, the musician friends I know are the ones that are on the stage. I go to L.A. and everywhere I go, I’m like, man, you live here too? Everybody moved there because they all wanted a window in their practice space.
You’ve been playing the Carlyle for three years now. Why do you like it so much?
It’s just so different. The first year I did it it they invited me, and it just sounded so weird. I thought, "Wow, that’s something I never thought of and I’ll try it." I did 10 nights, and it kind of opened up a new door for me in terms of the way I perform.
The Walkmen played these big rock songs at big festivals. We’d get up there, play all the songs and leave. It was an onslaught. That was our thing and I loved it, but it’s not very personal. When you are playing the Carlyle, there’s like 90 people, and they are still eating cheesecake at your feet. You’re almost not even amplified -- you are to get over the drums but it’s negligible.
It’s like we’re out having a drink together, and I’m playing some song. It’s more formal but it’s less formal at the same time. You walk through the crowd; you bring in the bass and it’s almost weirdly casual.
It’s like you’re playing in your living room.
Right, but everybody’s dressed up, and it’s kind of old school.
The night I was there, you ended up hanging out with Bill Murray at Bemelmans Bar for like 45 minutes.
Oh yeah, we rode the elevator up together at the end of the night.
Do you guys know each other?
I met him the first year I played there, and we had a big night together. It was incredibly fun. And then he was there again that night, I guess he remembered me. I definitely remembered him, and we had another big night. He’s one of those rare people that you like so much [as a celebrity] and then you meet him and he’s everything you wanted him to be.
And he seems to have really good taste in music. He had Jenny Lewis on his Netflix Christmas special.
He definitely does. He knows rock ‘n’ roll. That’s why we got along -- we had a lot of music stuff to talk about. The more drinks I have, the slower I get and the more repetitive I get. He’s one of those guys who, the more drinks he has, he’s just, like, in fifth gear and cruising. He doesn’t slow down one bit.
How has this pandemic and the quarantine that has resulted affected your work?
Well, it’s a nightmare for touring. I was really looking forward to going out on tour. I love playing the Carlyle, but I haven’t done a rock ‘n’ roll show in so long. I was thinking, man, it will be fun to travel with my rock ‘n’ roll band for a while, get on the festival scene and do all those big numbers. Now we are moving everything into the summer, but it looks like this could happen again the fall, which is just terrifying. I am not going to be organizing any events for people to get together if there’s a threat of coronavirus.