Chris LeDrew has been singin’ songs and slingin’ strings for years. Widely lauded as a solo songwriter/performer and mastermind behind numerous nostalgia-inducing tribute shows, LeDrew recently yielded to the muse yet again. Ending a lengthy hiatus from recording, Chris traveled to Nashville to record his newest album, Art of the Confessor, with his friend Joshua Grange.
The result is a moody ethereal collection of tunes that range from cool-rock attitude to crushing self-doubt. One minute mellow and tenuous, the next full of sway-instigating head-bopping. I had a brief chat with Chris about his return to the studio and what pushed him there.
What prompted this journey back into recording?
I had a long dry spell after my second solo album Stronger Man in 2006. That album ran its course in about a year. I was really happy to take home a couple of Music NL awards and such for my efforts, but a part of me let that album die in the cradle. I was in a different mode, becoming a father and studying English in grad school. Deep down I felt that maybe this was it for me as a songwriter. I was moving on to other things in my life and putting the writing behind me. But then about two years ago the ideas started coming again, almost out of nowhere. So I began to compile them on voice memos and work on arrangements.
Why Nashville and Joshua Grange?
Josh and I have known each other for a long time through the tight-knit pedal steel guitar community. We met in 2006 when he came to St. John’s with Dwight Yoakam, and then two years later in K.D. Lang’s band. So we kept in touch throughout the years and got together a couple of times in Nashville, where he moved from L.A in 2014 and built a studio. He moved there because of his main job playing steel with Sheryl Crow, who’s based out of there now. So during these couple of trips I mentioned that I was writing again, and the topic naturally came around to working with him at his studio. He had been producing some really cool, dark Americana stuff, and I thought it would be a great fit for me and a departure at the same time from my typical jingle-jangle Byrds/Petty/Dylan motif.
You went down there with a few songs but ended up writing the whole album there?
Yes that’s how it happened. Up until working with Josh I’d had full creative control over every album I recorded. I would choose my own songs to record, and that was pretty much it. There was no one to really give me any pushback on the quality of the writing. Josh is very assertive and knows what he wants. He listened to the demos I’d made, and about ten days before we were set to fly down and record he rejected about 80% of what was there, suggesting instead that we take ideas from an earlier pre-production writing session (that we had in February) and finish those for the record instead. Most of what we had from this single writing session consisted of half-finished ideas, partial arrangements, and hardly any lyrics. So needless to say I was taken aback and quite frankly pissed off. No one had ever outright dismissed so much of my material before. But at the same time the idea of going down and jumping in with these other ideas was really exciting. These songs were true collaborations between Josh and me, and there was something cool about the prospect of that Canadian-American mix. Josh had worked with some incredible musicians during his career, so I believed him when he assured me that we would create something stellar. Josh seemed 100% confident that in ten days we’d have a solid record of great songs. So I just went with it, put all my faith in him, and shelved the original batch of songs for another time. I wrote about 70% of the lyrics down there, in between takes and such. It was exciting writing under pressure like that.
There are those who would say that Nashville has an energy that helps create the music. There are also those who say that is a pile of bunk. What do you say about it all?
Well Josh’s studio is not what you would call cookie-cutter Nashville. It’s more of a retro, organic environment that has little to do with Music Row and the country music scene. So in that way our geographical location could essentially have been New York or L.A or anywhere. However, I really love Nashville as a city in general. The people there are very friendly, the food is fabulous, and the live music is incredible. So there is indeed an energy there that puts you in the mood to create, but not in the same way you might connect it to the TV show Nashville or whatnot. There is that scene there, of course, but we weren’t connected to it with this project. I really enjoy East Nashville, actually, and its incredible original music scene, which is steeped in roots and Americana. There are so many great little venues there that feature either upcoming songwriters or musicians off the road and looking for somewhere to jam. It’s an inspiring and very welcoming scene. On solo trips to Nashville I’d often just leave the hotel and head over there by myself and feel totally at ease going from bar to bar checking out acts. So in that way it certainly does inspire you to create. I think all musicians feel comfortable in Nashville because it’s one of the only cities in the world ruled primarily by music.
Art of the Confessor strikes me as a very organic, roomy and reverb-y album. It is equal parts familiar and new. Did you have a particular sound in mind when you went to work with Joshua or did this sort of come about after some experimentation?
The sound of this record was almost solely Josh’s vision. When we first got together to do pre-production, I think he evaluated my voice, style, and general vibe and forged a sound based around what he thought would strengthen me as a recording artist. In recent years I had been moving away from a rootsy Beatle-esque sound into more straight pop/rock sounds, but when we starting recording we found ourselves right back in Abbey Road mode, ha-ha! Something about the approach felt very natural and unforced. It felt like we were tapping into our sources but not overdoing any one sound. Josh is a very atmospheric player and writer, and he loves lush, retro reverbs. I often stayed out of his way and let him build tracks to his own tastes, which were often right in line with mine anyhow.
Your cousin Barry LeDrew was the only musician who went with you on the trip (playing drums/percussion). Why not just find a drummer there?
Barry and I have been playing together since 2003 when he joined Brothers in Stereo. Since then, he’s been a musical mainstay in my life. We are first cousins, so our voices blend together nicely. He’s got a killer high vocal register that I knew would be valuable to the songs on the record. He was with me in Nashville when I’d met with Josh and started talking about making a record there, and he and Josh hit it off personally as well. Both Josh and I wanted him to be part of the album. Also, I wanted a confidante there to ground me and level me out. Nashville is a pretty heady place, and it’s easy to get panicky there at times because it’s such an iconic city with a large musical history, and that can put you in a spin sometimes as an outsider from another country. So it was great to have a good friend there to balance that out. In addition to his talents, Barry is a great guy who always injects a healthy does of humor into any situation. So needless to say, the three of us laughed our way through the ten days in the studio. I feel lucky in many ways to have had Barry with me for this project.
Art of the Confessor sounds much darker than your previous albums. Are there any particular themes you had never tackled before?
The material that Josh and I wrote for the album seemed to lend itself to this sound. Josh worked closely for several years in the studio and on stage with K.D. Lang, and I think her darker, atmospheric style influenced Josh’s musical sensibilities; this probably informed to a certain degree the sound of my album. But overall I think that the material informed the sound. The songs are moody and seem to demand that kind of treatment.
Was the approach to writing and performing these songs different than previous works?
Yes it was different because I’d never collaborated to that extent with another writer before. Even with Brothers in Stereo we had come to studio with our songs written separately. So this latest album was a true collaboration in that sense, whereas I’d be largely a lone wolf for most of my writing years. The only other person I’d co-written with to that extent was Lennie Gallant. In the late ‘90s we wrote a lot of songs together that ended up on some of our projects. But we never wrote for one specific project like this one. So yes it was quite a departure from my previous albums.
What does Art of the Confessor mean to you?
I coined this term as an inversion of a quote by philosopher Albert Camus, who once famously said, “All art is a confession,” in that artists confess things about themselves in their art, either overtly or subversively. This quote sparked an idea in me about the act of confession itself; when people confess things, they often do it in a way that doesn’t completely reveal everything, or maybe they paint a picture that puts them in a more positive light, or they don’t fully confess the transgression or mistake. This is a bit of an art in itself, really…this subtle manipulation of the truth as a self-serving or self-preserving measure. So that’s where it came from. I wanted the album title to reflect the general concept that the songs confess aspects of my thoughts and personality through the lyrics, which are sometimes opaque but nevertheless all purposeful and meaningful.
Chris LeDrew’s album Art of the Confessor is available now. He’ll be showcasing at the upcoming Folk Alliance Conference in Kansas City February 15-19 and sharing the stage with Cory Tetford at Holy heart Theatre on March 8th.