The singer/songwriter doesn't mean to sound melancholy; it just comes out that way.
When Dylan LeBlanc says, "It's more of an upbeat show in general when I'm with my band," that doesn't mean the show will be upbeat. His recent Cast the Same Old Shadow album and 2009's Paupers Field - both on Rough Trade Records - present him as a weary soul, a Townes Van Zandt on Romilar with only his loss to keep him warm. Tonight he plays at The Circle Bar with his band for only the second or third time in the last month. He has been on a European tour opening for The Alabama Shakes on a number of dates, and the only one he played with his band was in London. His American tour with his band started last night, so he has played with only pedal steel player Melvin Duffy to accompany him. "It's a little nerve-wracking sometimes. It's nice to have a band. You feel less alone."
LeBlanc was born and went through his early years in Shreveport, but when he was 10, he and his father, a session musician, moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama to work at Fame Studios, and it's more of a home to him than North Louisiana. He arrived with only a knapsack, so he lived in a few T-shirts, a pair of jeans and a pair of combat boots, which immediately marked him as an outsider. Because of that, he found Muscle Shoals tough as a kid and teen, though he has come to like as a young man. Growing up, he struggled to fit in in school. "I did try, really, really hard," he says. "I even listened to music I didn't even fucking like. I didn't know who I was; I just wanted somebody because it was just me and my dad at that time."
Still, there was an upside to not fitting in. "That made a lot of space for me to hone my craft, write a lot of songs, play my guitar and shit like that," LeBlanc says. "I'm grateful for that. I wouldn't be where I am today if it weren't for that time on my hands."
Cast the Same Old Shadow isn't merely lonely; it's cinematically lonely. The booklet includes photos of small-town spaces largely devoid of people. The lone person in one is reduced to a shape by the shadows that envelope it. The songs would sound at home in a David Lynch movie as they clearly come from folk music, but they're not bound by folk traditions. LeBlanc sings as if he's singing to himself, with his voice that ranges from a mumble to an anguished cry. Producer Trina Shoemaker creates a dreamy atmosphere with layers of reverb and strings added via a mellotron. They add a suspect lushness that ramps up the drama as it draws attention to the strings' artificiality.
LeBlanc had movies in mind when he recorded the album, but Lynch wasn't the reference he was thinking of. "I'm a big fan of film scores," he says, and he found inspiration in the work of Ennio Morricone, James Horner and other soundtrack composers. Country, swing and classical music were also on his mind when he was recording the album, but "I approached it like it was a film score to a movie." That direction was largely the result of the first song written and recorded for the album, "Part One: The End."
"I wasn't trying to make a film score-like or a dream-like album, but that [song] had such a cool vibe to it that I wanted to make more songs like that," he says. "I had never written anything like that before. It was the foundation of the whole album." He cut it near Christmas 2010, and over the course of the next six months wrote material that made sense next to it and cut them when he got a clear days in his schedule, first in the spring at Fame Studios, then in early summer at The Music Shed in New Orleans.
His lyrical themes, particularly loneliness and lost innocence, are such a part of Cast the Same Old Shadow,that it's not to suspect that there's something the album leaves unspoken. "I am a pretty personal guy and I like to keep things to myself," he says, but he doesn't see himself as being deliberately private. "I try to leave no stone unturned when I'm writing songs, but I am me so it's sort of hard to figure that stuff out.
"I want to make pretty music. I love rock 'n' roll music and raucous stuff, but when I listen to music, I venture toward the more beautiful sounding stuff. I never made a conscious effort to sound melancholy. I try to make something pretty and it comes out sounding melancholy or sad."