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Interview: Dylan LeBlanc

7 November 2023

Photo by Abraham Rowe

Dylan LeBlanc’s unconventional education emerged not from the confines of overlooked schools and ancient textbooks but from the gritty streets of Shreveport, Louisiana, where crime and the drug trade were daily realities. Later, his musical education expanded when he relocated to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, living with his father, James, a professional musician centered around the renowned Fame Recording Studios. Surrounded by accomplished musicians in the recording studio, LeBlanc’s immersion in this world offered him a path towards a future beyond dead-end jobs and the allure of a criminal life.

These formative experiences have profoundly influenced LeBlanc’s musical journey, evident since his 2010 debut, Paupers Field. While he encountered his fair share of obstacles, his unwavering dedication to storytelling through his songs has given him a depth and wisdom well beyond his years. With several critically-acclaimed albums to his name, LeBlanc’s latest release, Coyote, showcases a semi-autobiographical narrative enriched with Southern Gothic imagery and evocative sounds. Now a seasoned musician, LeBlanc had the opportunity, for the first time, to collaborate with world-class musicians, leading to what he considers the best album of his career.

As he prepared to embark on a European tour, LeBlanc shared his thoughts from across the Atlantic, where he spends a significant portion of his time when not in Alabama.

Your dad, James, is a professional musician. Did you have a relationship with him when you were growing up?

DYLAN: My dad was a big part of my life. He was my first musical hero and I always idolized him. I didn’t really spend a ton of time with him until I moved in with him at the end of 1999. And then we moved to Muscle Shoals, Alabama in January of 2000. We spent a lot of time together for three years. He had his demons, of course, but our relationship now is better than it ever has been.

Do you live in Alabama now?

DYLAN: I live in Florence, Alabama, right across the river from Muscle Shoals. I split my time between there and northern Europe, where I have a fiancé and I have a daughter so I’m constantly going back and forth, which means I’m constantly tired. My fiancé lives in Norway, she has other children and she’s not able to move, so it’s me that has to make the moves.

Is that part of the reason you’re kicking off the tour in Europe?

DYLAN: That is one part of the reason. I want to keep building my fan base over here so that I can work in Europe more and be a little bit closer to home. But, America is my home and I will always tour there, as long as I have the opportunity.

I’m guessing a European tour doesn’t just get planned overnight, that you probably started booking this six months ago.

DYLAN: Yeah, we started this in April. Well, actually, probably a little earlier than that, maybe even late last year. It started actually getting lined up in April. There was no release when it started getting talked about, but we knew that we were going to have a release. So it was a little bit harder to plan out because of that, just trying to build on this new release. It all lined up perfectly. And, I’ve got my backing band, the Steel Vaqueros, with me. They’re my new band and they’re really great. Incredible players. Most of them are from Atlanta, but the drummer is from New Orleans. And then my dad is actually going to play bass with me in Europe. He’s coming over to Europe, which is going to be amazing. He’s been here before, but this will be his second tour in Europe. He came in the early 2000s, 2003 I think, and did a USO tour with a lady that he played guitar with for years.

When you plan a tour so far ahead, do you have to lock in all the band members to make sure that they’ll be available 6 to 8 months later? Or, do you book the tour and as you get closer see who’s available?

DYLAN: The band is interchangeable, but these guys have been locked in for the most of this year. I kind of knew that I wasn’t sure who was going to play bass and then my dad volunteered. I was like, “Cool,” because he’s an incredible musician. Period. He can play everything and play it extremely well. He’s a session guy and he’s all over my new album. I got to hire him to play on this record so we got to make it together, which was a lot of fun. But, yeah, everybody else was committed to it for the better part of this year.

I’ve heard you say numerous times that you’re very proud of this record. Is that something you say with every album you release or is this one special?

DYLAN: Not to sound cocky, but I do think it’s the most world-class album I’ve ever made. I think all of the songs are strong, I don’t think there’s a bad song on it. I worked really, really hard on it. I spent most of the pandemic writing all of this stuff and then getting into the studio. So I had a ton of songs to choose from. I recorded 17 and then 13 made it on the album. I was afforded the opportunity this time to hire top-notch, A-list session players that I’ve always respected and, to me, the level of musicianship on this record is at another level.

I also branched out and played a lot of slide guitar which is not something I normally do. The album was a lot of fun to make and I think the quality of it as a whole is an incredible piece of work. It is, without a doubt, the most proud of a record I’ve ever been.

You’ve said that the lyrics are semi-autobiographical. There are places where I can hear that but, the album kicks off with the song “Coyote,” about a drug coyote, and I’m guessing that’s not autobiographical.

DYLAN: No. I love my hometown. I have a lot of respect for it. I’m originally from Shreveport, Louisiana. I grew up with a lot of people like the character I wrote about, a lot of tough, hard young men and a lot of tough, hard young women too. They’re just a tough breed of people. I grew up there in the ‘90s and there were a lot of Crips and Bloods and just a lot of gang culture there. I was friends with a lot of those people and I certainly could have gone that way if it wasn’t for music. I was drawn to that lifestyle and I’ve always been drawn to the more dangerous, exciting ways of life, which was an extremely unhealthy part of my early adulthood.

So while some of the things you write about didn’t happen to you, you’ve seen those things happen to other people.

DYLAN: Yeah, I’m a storyteller. My job is to create the drama and put experiences and people and things I’ve seen into the lyrics. I’ve known people that walk that edge and you can always tell that they’re that kind of person because the room will literally change when they walk in it. I’m talking about some bad motherfuckers, man. I know a few of them. A lot of my friends got killed. One of my best friends got shot outside of his apartment complex. It was very real and I definitely existed in that world. It’s sad.

I think about how, if I hadn’t had music, where would I be? I’m not sure I would have gone down that road, but I was certainly always drawn to it in a weird way. I always thought it was cool, especially being younger and being into drugs and stuff at a young age, which I was. I was hip to that life, as they say. But I luckily never went that far. I always was a songwriter and I just like to write stories and songs about those experiences.

Can you imagine the movie that would be made with your album as the soundtrack?

DYLAN: Absolutely. I think a great songwriter is someone who writes something that the listener can visualize, something they feel something about on both an intellectual and emotional level. You should be able to see the picture as you’re hearing the music. I consciously make an effort to have a lot of words that will strike the listener visually or paint the picture lyrically. I think it’s important. And it also leaves a lot to the imagination. You can still be vague but get to the point, like people definitely know what you’re talking about.

One of the best examples of that is “Ode to Billie Joe” by Bobbie Gentry, which is one of my favorite songs. Bobbie Gentry was probably one of my favorite songwriters, especially when I was moving to Muscle Shoals. I always reference that song in particular when I’m writing. I love that song because it’s just them sitting around the dinner table talking about what happened to Billie Joe McAllister. Did he jump off the bridge or was he thrown off the bridge? Did someone kill him? Bobbie never really tells what happened but they’re talking about it and you get little hints. It’s this real cool Southern Gothic song, just an acoustic guitar and beautiful strings. They’re kind of stark and kind of come in and out. It’s mostly centered around her vocal and the story with very little instrumentation.

For some reason, that has sort of been the centerpiece of everything I’ve ever tried to create and try to mimic because, to me, that’s one of the best songs ever written. It’s said and spoken very simply, but it’s spoken in the dialect of country people. It’s like a Faulkner novel or something. It’s such a great, great song.

Most kids of your generation got their earliest music education through MTV and the radio, but it sounds like you were listening to things far beyond your years. Was that an influence of your parents? Did you like pop music when you were growing up or did you gravitate to songwriters?

DYLAN: I loved Prince. “1999” was a huge hit that played on the radio a lot when I was a kid. I was born in 1990 and Prince was more of the ‘80s, but my mother had great taste in music and still does. The pop music that we listened to was The Police, Tears for Fears, Prince, a lot of ‘80s U2. She was also a huge Billy Joel fan.

But it wasn’t until I moved to Muscle Shoals that I went further back and discovered artists like Bobbie Gentry. It just became clear to me that these were incredible songwriters, the people that were writing these songs. And then songwriting itself became this endless fascination that I started to develop at a young age and started to try to harness on my own but it also helped having people like Rick Hall around.

It was just me and my dad, so I was kind of lonely there. I had never been that good at making friends. My dad worked all the time, he stayed in the studio recording, so I spent most of my days and nights there just listening to the records that they had made there. I’d talk to the musicians that would come in and play on the sessions. I would hear the music that they had played on and just be in awe of them. Spooner Oldham is one of the biggest ones that comes to mind. Sometimes Chips Momen, who wrote “The Dark End of the Street,” or Billy Sherrill, who was a songwriting partner with Rick Hall, would walk into the studio.

Rick Hall was a big part of my life. He started the music there. He started as a songwriter and had a bunch of hits and that’s what afforded him the money to build the FAME studio. He was one of the only people in the South that, in the early ‘60s, would record black artists. I think he saw the talent in them and I think he felt like he was one of them. He was born to a poor sharecropper and he was out there doing everything he could to survive and scrap. He caught a lot of flack from people from how he grew up, he was dirt poor. He literally lived on a dirt floor.

So, people like that were important to me. I lived there when I was 10, 11, 12, 13 and I started going to the studio all the time and being around those people. If you like music like I did, I was just obsessed with it, then you’re gonna get it in your bones. They were all so intense. It was almost like the mafia, but the mafia of music. They could have been talking about murder. They were just so intense when they would speak about a song. It was a no bullshit game, you were either going to be part of the life or you were going to be out, they didn’t have time for people who were fucking around or just doing it for a hobby. You’re gonna eat, sleep and breathe it or I don’t want to talk to you. It was serious intensity and I decided to step into that. That’s how I was shaped, to take it extremely seriously and treat it for the sacred thing that it is.

Were you seen as just a kid who was hanging out in the studio because his dad was recording there or were you playing guitar and having people take notice?

DYLAN: I think I probably was getting on everybody’s nerves because they had a job to do and I was Mr. 20 Questions. I’m sure I was seen as the kid, but I think they thought it was cool because I think they could see how just obsessed with it that I was. Kids these days can get on YouTube and learn everything. They can learn the guitar and watch videos on how to do that. There was none of that when I was growing up, no smartphones. I didn’t have a computer. I just had a pen and a piece of paper and I knew a few chords and I listened to records and I would make my fingers make the sounds that would be made on the records. Even now, there’s chords that I play that I can’t tell you the name of. I just know how to play them. So it was a lot of “Hey kid, let me show you this.” Or, “Are you writing today? What are you doing to further yourself and music?” There was a lot of that and a lot of encouragement from the older cats that had been doing it for many years.

There was a guy named Walter Aldridge that my dad used to write with all the time. He wrote “Holding Her and Loving You,” which, to me, is an incredible country song. Jerry Reed had written and recorded “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft).” All these songs were so well constructed. Those were the songs I was studying.

There was also a guy that left tapes around named Robert Byrne. He had a bunch of great songs. And, of course, Jason Isbell was a staff writer at FAME in his early career. I remember finding a CD, a demo CD that he had made of Decoration Day before he had joined the Drive-By Truckers. I still have it. It was just him and an acoustic guitar, and I listened to that over and over. I was young, I was probably 13. He’s 10 years older than me, so he was already well on his way and doing his thing.

I would come straight to the studio every day after school and hang out until midnight. I slept in there some nights depending on how much my dad would work. He was working all the time but it was great, man. It was lonely at times, but it was mostly incredible. And I think they could see how intense I was about it and maybe that intrigued them. I’d like to think it did but I was probably more of a pain in the ass.

With that type of education, I have to imagine you didn’t like real school.

DYLAN: I never understood the concept of the learning process. It wasn’t for me. Also, the early education in Louisiana was very poor. The government is a bit corrupt. I don’t know where the fuck the tax dollars are going in Louisiana, but they’re damn sure not going to schools.

We were reading books from the ‘30s that were tattered. The lunch ladies were cussing at us. I was a ‘90s kid in a poor community and then when I moved to Muscle Shoals, it was the exact opposite. I grew up not caring in Louisiana and then I went to Muscle Shoals to what was called a “blue ribbon school”. I remember walking into the cafeteria and they had options and that blew my mind. I’d never seen fucking options before. I was like, “Oh, you can get a Gatorade in this motherfucker. OK, let’s go.” In Louisiana, it was just a straw and a plastic pouch of milk and that’s all. Going to school in Muscle Shoals was totally different but, by that time, I was concerned with other things, mainly music, and was a poor student.

I was a little bit of a problem kid. I had a hard time getting along with other kids. I was kind of an angry kid. I had anger issues and stuff and got in fights. Back then, they could whip you in school, so I got a lot of whippings by the principal. I was constantly in his office.

You were learning but you were learning about things you cared about, like playing guitar. And your lyrics are incredible, you must have learned that somewhere.

DYLAN: Well, it’s funny, because I actually did well in English Literature. And I did well in World History. And those are the only two classes that I took any interest in.

I was always higher than a kite in school, which is funny, because I must have just reeked of marijuana, but they never said anything or pulled me out of class. I did have a teacher call my mother and say, “I think your son’s on drugs.” But, at that time, I wasn’t living with her. I never wanted to be tied down. I never wanted anyone to be able to tell me what to do. I was pretty much doing anything I could to do whatever I wanted to do at that time.

I remember Miss Clary really was sweet to me. I really liked her, so I paid attention to her. I’d like to think that if she knew what I was doing now, she would think that I was doing a good job. She was a sweetheart of a teacher and she went the extra mile for her students. I always appreciated that because teachers, especially in Louisiana, were overworked and underpaid and there wasn’t a lot of appreciation for them so I appreciated her going the extra mile.

Let’s talk about the new record. It sounds to me like there are strings on “The Crowd Goes Wild,” unless maybe those are string sounds created by a keyboard or a computer.

DYLAN: They are real strings. The lady who played strings is Jenee Fleenor. She’s incredible. She’s one of those Nashville musicians who plays with everybody from Keith Urban to The McCrary sisters. She plays on the Grand Ole Opry all the time. She’s an incredible fiddle player.

The guy that actually recorded all those strings is Moose Brown. He’s the keys player on the record. I can’t take credit for those strings because he recorded them at his studio. I had put other strings with other players on the record and ran out of budget for strings. I really wanted strings and so I told Moose to put faux strings on the song. When he sent it back to me, it was real strings. It was so good. I had told him I wanted it to sound like Motown strings. I said, “Can you put something on here that sounds like Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye or ELO?”

One thing I love about this record is that there’s nothing on it that’s not necessary. It’s not over produced. I think good production is knowing when not to put something on a song because it’s easy to just throw everything you’ve got at the track. It’s harder to place restraint on yourself and say, “This is done and we don’t need to put anything else on this.”

You’ve got a library of music now. How do you decide what your set list is going to look like?

DYLAN: There’s about five songs that are “must plays,” that my fans are going to want to hear. And if I don’t play them, I feel like they would be upset. So those are always in the set. And then, I try to play one or two from every record. I skip Cast the Same Old Shadow a lot just because that record is not very well known. It kind of got lost in the shuffle during its release. And, also, I was an absolute nightmare when that record came out. I’ll do one or two from Paupers Field, one or two from Cautionary Tale, one or two from Renegade.

For this tour, I’m going to do the five that I know that people want to hear and then play primarily most of this new album live. I’m really going to push it. I’m going to go out and try to play the best representation of the album live, and I’m excited about that.

Is there one song that you hope people listen to, even if it’s the only song of yours that they check out?

DYLAN: I love the title track, “Coyote”. It has everything that I love about music in the track. It’s got an incredible guitar part. It’s really hooky. And it has really strong visuals, it feels like you’re in a movie. I love the strings. The rhythm and the groove of the song is incredible. I like how simple it is. I’m not one of those artists that’s trying to throw every chord in every song. I’m not throwing shade at anyone who does that because there’s a place for that. It’s actually harder for me to write a song with three chords than it is to write one with like 10 because you really have to be creative and keep it interesting with three. “Coyote” is a strong exercise in that. It sounds to me like JJ Cale. I’m a huge fan of the way his records sound sonically. To me, the perfect sounding record would be his 1971 album, Naturally.

On this record, I intentionally left the tape hiss in. I love that you can hear the tape wind up before the songs start. If you really listen, you’ll hear it a little bit. That tape hiss is on all of my favorite records. I just tried to mimic it. I’m not unique in that way, I just get inspired by the records that I love. I’m not trying to split the atom or anything.


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