Canadian singer-songwriter Jerry Leger’s brilliant Nonsense and Heartache – out now on Latent Recordings and produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies – is a double album, but, essentially it’s two distinct collections of songs.
The first half – Nonsense – is a raw, primal, bluesy, electric rock ‘n’ roll record, while the second instalment – Heartache – is a stripped-down, alt-country affair, with intimate ballads, lap steel, piano and fiddle.
Put them together and you have an album that reminds me of those classic early Ryan Adams long-players Heartbreaker and Gold – yep, it’s that good.
I spoke to Jerry, who with his band, The Situation, is on a tour of Europe and the UK, to find out why he decided to release a double album and to gauge if his current mood is nonsense, or heartache…
Nonsense and Heartache is a double album of 18 tracks, which is quite a brave move, isn’t it? You don’t hear of many double albums being released these days…
Jerry Leger: Yeah, it’s usually the artist who fights for a double LP, not the label, but, in this case, it was Mike Timmins and Latent who suggested it.
I dug that and I had more than enough songs and we had a bit of a concept behind it. I think it was a cool move, I mean why not? It seems these days a lot of people are gonna listen to it, or they’re not, whether there’s two or 200 songs. A lot gets lost – I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here.
How were the recording sessions for the album? Was it an easy or a difficult album to make? Did you have a lot of songs written before you went into the studio?
JL: They were easy – we all knew what we were there to do. Heartache was recorded first – that took about four or five days. Nonsense was recorded four or five months later – I think that took two days. I can’t quite remember how many songs I had lying around, but we recorded about 29 and chose 18.
‘I just wanna make albums I like while I’m here’
The album has a raw, live sound – Michael Timmins , who produced, recorded and mixed it, also worked on my favourite album of last year – John Murry’s A Short History of Decay, which is another raw, live-sounding record. How do Michael and you and your band manage to get that feel and sound in the studio? What’s your working relationship with Michael like?
JL: We just play live together in the studio. I also try to keep all the live vocals, but sometimes it’s not possible. There may be technical issues, or, if the band were cookin’ and I flubbed something that I really wanted to fix instead of leave in. Sometimes we just leave it in, though. Mike and I have a great working relationship – we like making the same kind of albums and we also like a lot of the same albums. He doesn’t get in my way creatively and when he makes a suggestion in the studio, it’s usually the right one. I respect what he does and what he has to say
One of my favourite songs on the Nonsense side of the album is Baby’s Got A Rare Gun – I think it channels ’65/’66 Dylan. Do you agree? It’s heavy, electric blues. What can you tell me about that track?
JL: Well, I love Chess Records – stuff like Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Howlin’ Wolf. I think it came from that sort of place, but, of course, I love Dylan, too, and that period is ingrained. When we recorded it, I wanted to get that over-driven vocal and band sound that’s on those records and early Bobby Bland.
The Big Smoke Blues – another of my favourite tracks on Nonsense – has a bit of a New Wave feel to it. It reminds me of Ryan Adams fronting The Strokes. Is that a fair comment?
JL: That’s fair, but I’d say it’s more Lou Reed and The Velvets rock ‘n’ roll, just ‘cos I listen to and love those records. I did really like the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day! I never really followed their career after, though. The Big Smoke Blues is a reference to Toronto, but it could be a lot of different places for the listener. It’s a tune for outsiders.
‘I really liked the first Strokes album when it came out. I was 14 or 15 and thought they were here to save the day!’
Let’s flip the record over and talk about the Heartache side. It kicks off with the first single, Things Are Changing Round Here, which sounds like a classic country-rock song. What inspired that track?
JL: The East End of Toronto, where I grew up, was the initial inspiration. I’m only 32 and the area I grew up in is a strange land to me now. A lot of the personality is being sucked out of it – they’re knocking down blocks of old homes to build up to the sky. The unique shops and bars that can’t make the inflated rent are being replaced by boring chains.
Another Dead Radio Star – I love that title – is one of my favourite songs on the album. What’s the story behind it? I’ve heard that it was inspired by the 1930s radio show The Shadow, which was voiced by Orson Welles…
JL: I was listening to a compilation of radio stars from the ‘30s. The song I’d Give A Million Tomorrows (For Just One Yesterday) was playing and it sparked the idea – it’s referenced in the song. I also had another record of old radio shows by The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks of Kansas City, so they got a plug.
Things come and go, but their shadows remain in one way or another, and I’m the kind of person that looks for them. My dad used to listen to The Shadow, The Creaking Door and others as a boy and that has always stayed with him. It’s theatre of the mind.
The last song on the album, Pawn Shop Piano, is a great way to close the record – a gorgeous piano ballad. Was it written and played on a pawn shop piano?
JL: Some of the lines and ideas I’d written down before, or had floating in my head just waiting to be used. The first time we toured in the States we stayed at a dingy motel called the Travel Lite Inn, or something like that… I just liked the way it sounded and we survived.
We played Johnson City in Tennessee a couple of times and I remember this pawn shop called Diamonds and Guns and it had this great hand-painted sign, too. I jotted that title down in a notebook and figured I’d use it for something some day. It’s one of my favourites on the record and it just has a lot of truth in it for me.
Who are your main musical influences?
JL: There’s a lot, but Hank Williams I’ve heard for as long as I can remember and I just don’t think it gets better than that. Bob Dylan changed the way I wanted to write, Lennon and The Beatles made me wanna start playing, and Lightnin’ Hopkins was the coolest. When I was 13, my grandparents’ neighbour was giving away blues records. I just thought Lightnin’ looked cool – I hadn’t heard of him. When I listened to it, it was just wild – so natural, no bullshit. Leonard Cohen was also an early influence – my dad came home one day and gave me the first Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man.
‘My dad came home one day and gave me the first Leonard Cohen album and a book of poetry called Death of a Ladies’ Man’
You’re heading out on a European and UK tour. What can we expect?
JL: I’m really looking forward to it – it’ll be my first time overseas in general. They’re all full-band shows and this line-up has been together for over 11 years, so it’s nice to do this together for the first time. What can you expect? I don’t know – I’ll just be singing my songs. I’m not ready to do anything flashy yet.
What music – new and old – are you currently digging?
JL: Lucinda Williams – Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone; Ronnie Lane – See Me; Graham Nicholas – Dial Tones And Pretty Notes, and Ann Peebles – I Can’t Stand The Rain.
If I’m home I listen to a lot of music – the first thing I do when I wake up is put a record on. I don’t love silence.
So, what next? Can we expect a triple album?
JL: Why stop there?
Finally, what kind of mood are you currently in: Nonsense or Heartache?
JL: I’m in a Nonsense and Heartache selling mood.
Nonsense and Heartache by Jerry Leger is out now on Latent Recordings. For a full list of European and UK tour dates, go to https://jerryleger.com/