Nashville-based americana band Judah And The Lion is back with their third studio album, Pep Talks (out May 3rd). The album was born out of challenges frontman Judah Akers faced as his family fell apart as a result of divorce, addiction and death. It is a tribute to the fire that Akers walked through, his realization that getting through means being vulnerable and trusting those around you, letting people in to help. “Up to this point, the band’s message has mostly been: ‘Live your best life! Pursue your dreams! Follow your heart!'” says Akers. “We had to start this record with broken-ness, with this cry that says, ‘I don’t want to hide this from anyone anymore. I’m going through something. I need help.'”
In our new interview, frontman Judah Akers, Brian Macdonald (mandolin, vocals), and Nate Zuercher (banjo, vocals), discuss the making of Pep Talks, how the album fits into the world’s mental health conversation, collaborating with country music superstar Kacey Musgraves, and more!
Hey Judah and the Lion! How are you enjoying Toronto?
Brian Macdonald: We love it! It is one of our favourite cities to visit. This was one of the first cities we came to, in Canada, so that’s something, but yeah, we love getting to know all the different parts of towns. When we play shows usually you stay in that pocket but yeah, it has been awesome so far.
Judah Akers: People are really sweet here! Y’know, a lot like Nashville in the south, people are sweet and welcoming but it always feels like, when we come into Canada, and Toronto, we get a good welcome. We’re here promoting our new album, Pep Talks, and it has been out for a couple of days now, it has been a really cool week of people hearing the music for the first time, obviously we’ve sat with it for a while, feels like almost a year almost now.
Nate Zuercher: Not even feels like it’s been, it has been!
JA: Yeah, and it is really cool, really cool to have it out in the world.
It’s great to have you here with the album, and I’m so glad you’ve been made to feel welcome here in Toronto! It’s Mental Health Awareness Week in Canada, which is fitting given that Pep Talks focuses on mental health. In what ways has this album allowed you to reflect on your own mental health?
JA: I think, with mental health, it is important, to be honest with yourself at first, and then to be honest with other people. Our goal within this record is that, there’s a lot of very specific, brutal, honesty in regards to addiction, and anxiety, and to what its like to feel out of control in life, or what its like to get through your family going through all of these crises and it feels like you can’t fix any of it, and that can be so overwhelming at times. We just feel like, with music and these songs, we’re finding that a lot of people or I guess, we’re just wanting a lot of people to be honest because everybody’s got a story and everyone’s got their own sets of struggles, whether it be addiction, or depression, or anxiety, or whatever the thing is.
I think all we can do as humans is just look forward, and to choose to hope, and to just crush that stigma of those things being weaknesses, and actually just to call them out, and say look this is something that is really hard for me, and learn how to lean on people rather than just feeling isolated and alone in the world. Obviously, now in our society, it feels like discussions about going to see your therapist or having a similar kind of diagnosis, is not as much of a stigma anymore, which is a beautiful thing and I think we should get better at those [discussions]. So, I think that especially with this week being about mental health awareness, it’s just fitting to be able to talk about it, to be honest.
I couldn’t agree more. How does Pep Talks reflect the challenges of mental health that musicians tackle while recording, producing and performing?
BM: I think the biggest challenge for bands is how to present yourself in an honest way but also in a balanced way, because, you want to honestly share what is going on in your life, but you have to weigh what is worth keeping inside, to not reveal too much, I guess, when you’re in the spotlight. But I think that this album reflects that in a way, just because, I feel like we are at a point where we, um, this is the most honest that we’ve been as a band, and it has been really rewarding, because that honesty has caused our fans to show honesty to us as well. I think creating that connection is something that we are super thankful that we have been able to do, but it is probably one of the hardest things to do for a band.
With that connection between you and your fans, and the name, Pep Talks, do you feel like each track acts as its own personal pep talk for those listening?
JA: I think in some ways, because, I think the overall message, and it’s kinda funny because the title is Pep Talksbut this is like the least peppy we’ve been as a band, just as far as the lyrics and the overall stories can be a little heavy and painful at times, but I think that is like, the truest form of optimism, or pepping someone up, or encouraging somebody, is to go there and to be honest, to gravitate towards, hey this sucks in my life and right now I’m really struggling with x, y, and z, but you’re still choosing to move forward. I think the overall message is a big pep talk, but every song speaks into a different side of that.
You say ‘least peppy’, but you guys are known for your unique genre-blending sound, so how does Pep Talks sonically differ from your previous album Folk Hop n Roll?
BM: It’s just like a progression, I think we’ve gone back to our roots a little more as well.
NZ: I think, its a general maturity that has come with us playing together more, and experiencing more, trying things, and the confidence that has come with being more ourselves and seeing if that’s ok. I think sonically, this is the biggest range of anything we have ever done and hopefully the best quality of that too. A lot of that, is that we had three months to record it, so that allowed for meticulous work to really listen, and to hone in on everything, on every detail, in the finest possible way, so with that it allowed for the finest opportunity to expand into a broader sound spectrum, not just genre-wise but also the depth of our instruments and the quality of sound. I’m really proud of how it turned out and the work that everybody put into it – it’s pretty awesome.
It’s very awesome, one track that really punches out is “I’m In Over My Head” as it is so powerful, in both composition and lyrics. We’ve already pointed out that a problem with society is that we don’t talk enough about mental health, so was there any point during the production of this album that, you felt in over your head?
JA: Yeah, just to be transparent, at times, I didn’t really want to put it out, or I was a little bit scared for this part of my story to be out in the world, to be out past my best friends, that have my back no matter what, and into stranger’s hands, or into their ears. So there’s like, or there was, a lot of overwhelmed-ness of, oh my gosh I can’t believe these specific stories of what was going on with my family or what’s going on in my life is gonna be out for people to kind of take care of, but I think, what we have found already, in the few days it has been out, is that out-of-control feeling is something that people, all people, can relate to. There is this solidarity and this uniting of forces that happens among humans when you feel out of control or overwhelmed with certain things in life, that kind of makes it beautiful.
A beautiful sentiment appears on “I’m Ok” as you repeat: “I’m not ok, maybe that’s ok” – what is the most important message a listener can take from listening to Pep Talks?
JA: I think what we’re trying to say in Pep Talks is that everybody’s story matters. Everybody’s coming at any given night, at a concert or out in the world, and it doesn’t matter who you are, what you believe, your race, or any of the stuff we have to justify in the world – and its sad that we do have to kind of justifying – but anyone, your story matters because you are human and that is a blanket statement. Your story matters, you deserve love. I think what we are trying to say is that no matter what that story is, your story doesn’t define who you are, because at the end of the day, you get to define the story.
So, as humans, we have that choice whether to choose beauty or to choose hope, or not, and I guess we are trying to encourage people to choose the good things and to choose hope. Not like, y’know, try to get over the bad stuff, and it’s not like mulling over escaping the bad stuff, it’s looking at it like, this is the reality but we are choosing the way forward.
I think two tracks that really define that are “Queen Songs/Human” and “Don’t Mess With My Mama”, while both are different in sound, both are about your mom, was it a creative decision to place the tracks back to back or did they just fit in that way?
JA: Oh yeah that was planned, on purpose, it’s kind of funny because “Queen’s Songs” is one of the songs I was more scared to put out, just because it’s about, and it dives into, my mum’s struggle with alcoholism and how that affected us as kids, as well as the people around her. To see her battle that, really fight it too, it’s not like she’s super proud of that struggle in her life, but “Don’t Mess With My Mama” kind of protects that because its kinda like, man, I love my mama, and I have my mama’s back no matter what, and Queen’s Songs is kinda hopeful towards my mom, honestly, but we wanted a song that kinda protected that as well. Just like, yeah this is the reality, but I have my mom’s back more than anybody and sonically on the record, it goes from this folk, singer-songwriter song to this cinematic, beautiful, kind of, instrumental song, that almost feels like you’re running into a really weird EDM track which is what we were trying to do with this record, we were trying to put no boundaries, no restrictions, on this story – just like it went from this beautiful moment to this like, I wanna fight somebody moment which is kinda fun.
I guess life can just be a pendulum between those moments. “Pictures” is a beautiful dialogue between your voice, Judah, and Kacey Musgraves’ voice, what was it like adding a feminine voice to that track, and what did you want to achieve with it?
JA: The song is actually written from my parent’s perspective and so I wanted to vocalize from my dad’s perspective, and some of the things that he had said over the past little bit and through the divorce. It’s also written from like my mom’s perspective, and her side of it and how it was just this gnarly thing that both of them didn’t really foresee in their lives and y’know after 26 years of marriage they probably wouldn’t have really pictured that, no pun intended, to be their reality. It’s just this painful thing where, I think, it allowed me to kind of step into their perspective and into their heads and kinda have more empathy toward my parents, rather than to just be angry at them for the things that they were choosing. And Kacey – there was nobody better to blend those stories together, and we were just super stoked to have her sing from my mom’s side of the story.
After tracks these tracks that we’ve just spoken about, and about half-way through the record, there’s a slight change of tone, “Alright (frick it!)” is pretty uplifting – does it mark an important change?
BM: Definitely. I think that is, or I guess the turning point in the album is “7000x” where things are moving forward again, but “Alright (frick it!)” is choosing to hope that we are gonna be alright. All these things that we have talked about on the album are all still very real, but this is what we are choosing in this moment – to move forward and to choose to hope.
You’re certainly moving – you’re heading off on a 37-date tour! Which venue are you most excited to play at?
JA: *smirks* Nate can answer that one.
NZ: Red Rocks, Red Rocks, always Red Rocks, in Colorado. Yeah, I grew up in Colorado and I went to so many shows, I think the first one I saw in there was Incubus during middle school and it just felt like it became my destiny to play in there, and my dad has performed in there a couple of times, he has just been this massive force of encouragement that dreams do come true and to now be a couple of months out from it is pretty gnarly, really really cool but there are so many awesome spots that we get to play, and great cities that we get to go to and all that but I think that one has the most excitement behind it.
When you play this album back in Nashville, does it feel all the more powerful given that Pep Talksdeals with your home-life?
JA: Powerful and scary. Y’know, music has a beautiful way of making specific stories not specific but if you’re in those stories, and you know the specifics, it makes it really powerful and scary all at the same time. So it definitely hits home more, but I think that is the beautiful thing about music – each song, even if you’re a songwriter or you listen to music, you can attach that to a memory or to a season of life. It doesn’t have to be like this is my story for everyone ever, with a lot of these songs, there is still a lot of ongoing stuff that obviously because life is ongoing, and we are all battling, daily, our own versions of pain and there are also songs that just attach themselves to memory or season and I think there is some beauty in that as well.
You guys will be back in Toronto on June 22, to open for Arkells, how did that friendship come around?
JA:We actually did an interview with Max on “Mike on Much”, the podcast, and literally just hit it off on that podcast. Through conversation just kinda became acquainted and he [Max] ended up coming out to the show, and we were just texting back and forth so yeah, we’re super stoked that they asked us and trust us to open up for their hometown, massive show that they are doing, that we are really really stoked about!
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