Burning bright to the wax
Andrew Leahey & the Homestead make heartland rock as straight up as a shot of whiskey; no “with pop leanings,” or “with country touches,” or any other such hybrid foolishness.
Their sound calls to mind a power chord version of Tom Petty, or an electrified and revved-up Steve Earle, which are very good sounds. Ask Leahey himself what box to put him in (for the benefit of any rube who needs a stupid box), and he’ll say “rock & roll.” That works, too. Bass, drums, two guitars, and a keyboard. How can you beat it?
Armed with a Les Paul, strawberry locks down to his shoulders, a scruffy reddish beard, and an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude toward the sound he both salutes and creates, Leahey has just dropped his third record, Skyline in Central Time. It’s been a long time coming, considering how he and his band have been burning up and down Interstate 40 for a decade now. But one occasionally needs to step back and appreciate the bigger picture, in that Leahey’s also just plain glad to be alive and well. (More about that later.)
Produced by drummer, Wilco cofounder, Grammy winner and all-around good guy Ken Coomer, Skyline in Central Time brims with big hooks, cool guitars, stacked harmony vocals, and (oh, OK) a little bit of pop or country leaning here and there. The vocals are great, which is no surprise if you know Leahey’s history. He didn’t actually start out singing rock & roll. He was a choral singer with the Juilliard Choral. Yes, that Juilliard.
Born and raised in Richmond, Va., Leahey doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t sing. “I’d always sung around the house,” he recalls, sitting in his sun-filled house in Germantown, while one cat nuzzles and marks the visitor, and another perches suspiciously halfway up the staircase. “I don’t think I realized that it was not something that everyone could do.”
Between his parents and his older brother, his musical education began early.
“My parents loved soundtracks of oldies songs,” he says, “like the Good Morning, Vietnam soundtrack and the American Graffiti soundtrack, Stand by Me, The Big Chill. They’re great albums, but they only offer a glancing view into those catalogs. So my older brother was the one who chased down more stuff. I got into hair metal when I was a kid because that’s what he was into, like in the late ’80s. I did like a lot of classical music growing up, too, and that was a result of my mom being in that world. She was a classically trained vocalist.
“I’d gone to a private school for years, and then switched into public school for eighth grade. I remember talking to the guidance counselor. He was putting me into Honors English, geography, whatever you’re supposed to take, and Mom said, ‘You have to put him in the choir!’ I said, ‘No, Mom! That’s gonna be social suicide,’ and at that age it was, you know, because middle school kids are just cruel. But after one week of singing in that choir, I didn’t care if it was suicide — it was great!”
The experience set off a chain reaction. “I guess I realized that I could pursue it and make it bigger,” he says, “I’d already been playing guitar, so I just put it all together and started writing songs that year, when I was 12 years old. Crappy songs, but songs nevertheless.”
Leahey began playing bars and clubs in his teen years, and his voice kept developing. “One thing about the hair metal thing — and I think part of the reason I was really into it — is that it’s such an ostentatious genre,” he says. “Everything about it is overblown. A lot of those vocals, given the grandness of them and the whole vibrato usage, it was really not too far afield from classical music. I think parts of it dovetailed with what I was learning in choir and private voice lessons. I think that was why I gravitated toward that.”
As the years went by, though, Leahey’s career trajectory wasn’t exclusively performing. He also developed and cultivated a passion for music journalism, and that pursuit is actually what brought him to the big city and the Juilliard Choral.
“I graduated college and moved up to New York to work at a magazine, and my roommate was a fundraiser at Juilliard. That was his job, and he had a good voice. He’d done choir in college, and he told me that they (Juilliard) were always looking for male singers. Every choir’s low on guys, and they needed these people to join the Juilliard Choral. It wasn’t like a class that met after work twice a week, it was a choir that was 90 percent Juilliard kids and 10 percent community members, who were usually the guys balancing out the guy-to-girl ratio. So I joined that in early 2006. I was with them about a year and a half until I moved out of New York in 2007.”
While there was a rush to be gained in hearing his voice in all its power in union with so many others, there were aspects to it that were so unlike rock & roll, and that bothered Leahey. “It felt unnatural to me, to be that loud when you sing, but to iron out all the cool kinks in your voice and sand off all the rough edges,” he says. “It’s what makes a good classical vocalist because you’re a member of this larger thing, but it does a disservice to you as a solo performer. I realized I like to sing things a little differently every night, depending on the room, the crowd, and how I felt. In classical music, you have to sing the piece exactly the same way night after night. Ultimately, I felt like, if I could be in that choir and sing in those incredible rooms and still not want to dedicate my life to it, then it’s just not for me!”
A more permanent factor of his life was the result of Leahey’s New York experience, and her name is Emily. “We met at the CMJ festival in New York City in 2005,” Leahey says. “I had been living there maybe two weeks, I was interning at Spin magazine, and we were a sponsor of CMJ that year. Emily was the program director of her college radio station, the University of Arizona, and they had flown her there to cover it. She was one year younger than me, was still in college, and we just crossed paths, kept in touch, and eventually started long-distance dating.”
Now, remember the “glad to be alive and well” part? Here we go.
Newlyweds in 2007, Andrew and Emily moved to Ann Arbor, Mich., so he could take a job writing for allmusic.com. “I started getting migraines after we moved there,” he remembers, “and at the time I thought it was maybe an allergy thing, because I’d never lived there before.”
He got the migraines once every week or two, and they increased in severity. Doctors were baffled. It carried on for years, long after the couple relocated to Nashville. “And then, in 2013, I came back from a big tour — all year long I’d been touring, I’d racked up like 100 gigs by July. You know when you get like a tone in your ear, like a buzz? That happened when I got home, and I thought it would just go away like it normally does, but it didn’t. A couple of weeks later it was still happening, and other things happened, too — this weird congested feeling in my ear, like I had cotton in it. And there was a balance problem associated with it; I’d clip my shoulder on walls as I was walking by. Something was just off!”
It took a while to get his problem correctly diagnosed. “I think August of ’13 was when we got an MRI, and the doctor said, ‘You have this brain tumor called an acoustic neuroma. It grows on your hearing nerve and can cause balance problems, and facial paralysis because of how close the hearing nerves are to the nerves that control facial muscles. So they said I could have about six months in which to schedule the operation — that nothing would further deteriorate within that period. So we were playing Americana fest in September of 2013. I just couldn’t turn off that business part of my brain and didn’t want to let too many people know that I was going to take a big break. I wanted to ring the bell as loudly as I could, and hopefully it would keep resonating while I was getting better.”
Having rung the bell sufficiently, Leahey underwent surgery for removal of the tumor in November 2013. And there was good news. “It was a benign tumor, thankfully,” he says, “and now I go back every year for a checkup. At first, it was every month, then every three months, six months — now it’s every year to get a hearing test, an MRI, and get everything checked out. I lost a little bit of hearing in that ear; it’s at about 70 percent. And I don’t drink coffee anymore, I don’t drink alcohol, and that really helps with the migraines.” He said this while drinking green tea and eating something called tiger nuts, which are supposedly nutritious but taste too much like ’shrooms to enjoy them as is with no psychoactive reward in the offing.
The impact of the health ordeal informs much of Skyline in Central Time. “The Good Life” tells the true story of his and Emily’s meeting through to the present day, and her caring for him during his infirmity and recovery:
Hey love, you’re something we’re waiting for
You’re something worth building toward
On the album’s quietest song, the pensive “When the Hinges Give,” Leahey considers a devil-may-care nihilism he could have gone for in the days before it was known the tumor was benign:
So if we burn to the wax, we’ll make the most of the heat,
While the devil counts the minutes like it’s New Year’s Eve
And when the hinges give, we’ll be a bottle down,
Singing one last song for those we keep around
“It’s just me playing acoustically.” Leahey explains, “That’s one live take, and we overdubbed harmonies and violin.”
He goes on to say how the lyrics could also be an expression of a young couple making every moment count. “That song in particular is about the 2½-month period between the diagnosis and the operation, when Emily and I had to figure out how to be present and enjoy what could’ve been our last weeks together,” he explains.
Obviously, it wasn’t their last weeks. And Leahey doesn’t want to dwell on the dark side as a regular matter of course. “I believe that if you focus on something bad too much you can unconsciously put the wheels in motion to get the bad thing to become reality,” he says. “So that song is about that. If we burn to the wax, let’s make the most of the heat, so if the candle is burning down, that still means there’s light and warmth, and you can freak out about what’s going to happen when that flame is gone or you can enjoy it while it’s still there.”
The flame that is Andrew Leahey & the Homestead is burning bright and giving off plenty of heat. Signed and aligned with Thirty Tigers, the record dropped on Aug. 12. At their release party gig at The Basement, the air conditioning went out. “The air was thicker than Henry Rollins’ neck,” Leahey says.
The band will be on the road for much of the fall, including several weeks on the road with Roger Clyne and the Peacemakers. They’ll burn to the wax and enjoy the heartland heat, Leahey rocking a Les Paul through a Vox AC30 and singing with the unforced joy of a man who loves to rock and also is just plain glad to be alive