by Craig Howieson
From the dust of New York sidewalks, armed with songs that carry a golden prestige, Hamilton Leithauser continues to fight the good fight
‘School sucks when you have to teach.’ As we begin our call, it quickly becomes apparent that the current pandemic is impacting upon Hamilton Leithauser in ways he never expected. ‘My little one is young enough that she can’t really operate the whole online thing herself, so it’s suddenly a six hour a day job for me, which is unbelievable that that has become such a big part of my life. I didn’t ask for it you know.’ However, 2020 has done little to dampen his prolific nature. In a year that has found him having to diversify into the role of full time educator, Leithauser has still managed to release two records, a collaborative single, and contribute to numerous other projects.
His first full length release of 2020 was the critically acclaimed The Loves of Your Life – his third solo record and an entrancing collection of third person vignettes that found him stepping out of the comfort of his own shoes to tell the stories of others around him, including friends and strangers alike. A bohemian melting pot of styles and influences, it bubbles with an excited energy – carrying the buzz of late night parties, as snippets of hilarious tales are misheard and misquoted.
To record the album, Leithauser hunkered down at his home studio – affectionately, although not entirely ironically – christened ‘The Struggle Hut’. ‘I kinda had my own self lockdown going cause I was working by myself every day,’ he says. Utterly devoted to its creation, he cut himself off from the outside world to such an extent that he was relishing getting back out on the road just as COVID-19 took hold. ‘When I finally finished, I told myself, “now is the part when you get to go out and play your songs and meet people and see your friends and travel”. I hadn’t toured in so long that I was ready for it. So when the thing hit, it was a little bit of a ball buster.’
When pushed on the positives he has taken from being in quarantine, Leithauser explains, ‘I see a lot of my family – it’s nice spending time with them, and I got plenty of time to be home working in the studio instead of on tour.’ Having more time on his hands found Leithauser trawling through his archives, which resulted in the unearthing of recordings from his most recent residency at the Cafe Carlyle, New York in January 2020. It was a set of gigs which turned out to be his last live performances of the year. A mix of covers and originals – lovingly mixed by Leithauser – the record, on its arrival, felt like a sorely needed lift for not just his fans but fans of live music in general in a year when they have been starved of it. His endearing inter song anecdotes and whisky blazed covers of Big Thief and Lana Del Rey are enough to raise the weariest souls. As he explains, ‘I don’t know if I would have released it without the quarantine, but just listening through it was really fun and I thought, “this is the closest thing I can do to play a live show, why the hell not just share this with people right now!”’
Another impact of the pandemic was being left unable to road test his new songs, which in turn led to an unexpected reworking. ‘I wouldn’t be sitting around strumming my own song if I was playing it every night on stage,’ he says. ‘I would have gotten enough out of it. But I was just playing through Isabella and I was thinking it might be fun with a little bit more of a reggae groove on it.’ To help round it off, he roped in an old touring buddy to contribute vocals. ‘I asked Lucy Dacus if she would sing on it and she did and she sounded awesome… it seemed like a legit new version.’
The world has become close to unrecognisable in the eight years since Leithauser’s former band, The Walkmen, released their sixth album, Heaven, and entered an extended hiatus. An exuberant, triumphant record, it felt like a celebration of all that had come before for the band; the pinnacle of a group at the height of its power, relishing one last waltz around the ballroom before disappearing into the night. It was the perfect swansong, if indeed that’s what it becomes. ‘It wasn’t made to be the final Walkmen record (and) who knows if it will be,’ Leithauser says. ‘But by the time we finished it, a lot of kids had been born and a lot of people had moved all over the country. So I do remember that when we called it Heaven and decided to put pictures of our families on it, it felt like let’s show who we are now and give an honest representation of our lives; and we had come pretty far.’
But, despite the album’s overwhelmingly positive reception, and sounding like the victory parade of a band so in control and attuned to their own workings, the truth was quite different. ‘I was happy to show that we had happy families and stuff, but it’s funny because it really wasn’t easy to make that record at all… making Heaven was a real struggle. While we were making that record, I had also been starting to work on stuff that I thought I might work on by myself, and I had started to talk to other people in the band about it too.’ Still, the arduous process of its creation did not make the decision to step away and continue on his own an easy one, as Leithauser admits that ‘there was a little bit of a sad feeling that I hope it’s not the end.’
There are few that would argue that Leithauser’s time with The Walkmen and solo career to date could be viewed as anything other than a commercial and critical success. And yet, despite this success, he talks of a restlessness – a desire to push himself forward to achieve whatever it is that might come next. ‘There’s no content, I never felt content, I never did. Even with any success we’ve ever had I never felt content.’
In describing his writing and recording process, Leithauser paints the picture of a battle – one that he enters into knowing that it will not be easy – in the hope that he will emerge bloodied but triumphant. It’s something that, to date, has always been the case, but it does little to allay his fears. ‘It’s never easy. I don’t know if it was easy it’d be boring, but it always feels like a fight to make a record. Every time. I wish I could avoid it, to be honest, as I guess a lot of people probably do. You can tell yourself at the beginning that it’s gonna get bad, but I’m gonna pull through. But, when it gets bad, you really start to doubt yourself.’ Even with the help of those closest to him, he cannot shake the demons that torment his creative process. ‘My wife was laughing the last time I got to the point I was like “I don’t know if I can even do this anymore, maybe I’ve done it too many times.” She said, “you’ve been saying that for twenty-something years.” And here I am, however many records later, I’m still kicking. You have to just tell yourself to just keep trying and hope you have luck at some point. I’d like to not have to get to that point, but I’ve never not gotten to that point.’
Describing it as a somewhat ‘lonely process,’ making The Loves of Your Life had the added pressure of Leithauser taking on the project almost entirely alone. ‘I wrote it, I played almost all the instruments and I recorded it and mixed it myself at home. I really enjoyed a lot of the process, but, at the same time, there’s no payoff. When you get to hang out with your friends and listen to your songs really loud in the studio and everyone’s happy and goes out for a drink afterwards, that never happened.’
Working entirely from home meant Leithauser had to be creative when he couldn’t quite fulfill all the roles himself. This, in turn, led to a musical baptism for his two daughters, who sing on the record and have since gone on to feature on the new Fleet Foxes’ album. Leithauser laughs as he explains how ‘if I needed a backup singer, I was like, “girls get up here. I’ll let you have an extra cookie if you sing this.” So they all come running up and they’d love doing it and it was fun.’ The process seems to have added to a sense of fulfillment for Leithauser. ‘This was all going on under my roof. My house was ‘The Struggle Hut,’ a one-stop-shop for making an entire record. And that was pretty rewarding; to be able to actually finish it and know that I’d just churned it out; it was amazing – I’d never done that before.’
One of the most endearing features of The Walkmen was their embrace of vintage equipment and recording techniques that cast their rough and rowdy indie rock in a vintage hue. It was a quality that marked them out from their peers in the mid ‘aughts and made it hard to place them in a specific period. ‘We didn’t even use computers up until late in the game,’ Leithauser says – ‘I’d always been (part) of a live band working together in the studio atmosphere.’
This reliance on analogue technology left Leithauser thoroughly unprepared for the leap to becoming a bedroom producer, something which he turned to his friend – and I Had A Dream That You Were Mine collaborator – Rostam Batmanglij for help. Describing him as ‘very much a one-man band,’ he credits Rostam with helping him to ‘understand how it’s possible to keep a spontaneity and an energy to writing and recording music by yourself.’ Leithauser continues, ‘when you don’t have a bunch of people playing off each other and doing unexpected fun stuff, it gets so sterile, so fast.’
Attempting to keep things fresh led to him adopting some interesting techniques. ‘I was listening to a lot of Marvin Gaye when I was making this record and I would try to imitate his voice. And try to sing with a falsetto, or with that barely there cool that he has. It sounds ridiculous when I do it, but, every once in a while, you’ll get something.’
For a man with one of the most recognisable and enviable voices in indie rock, the real fight he faced when working on The Loves of Your Life came from an unlikely source. ‘I had all this music that I loved, and I thought I was getting a really good sound, but every time I went to sing, I developed some block. I just couldn’t stand the sound of my own voice.’ These were never intended to be instrumental tracks and Leithuaser slowly began to realise he had a problem on his hands. He amassed twelve or thirteen tracks before realising the extent of the issue: his inability to land vocals for them was leading him to believe that he had little other option than to walk away from them for a while and regroup.
‘I kinda stepped away from it for a little while until I met this really oddball guy on the Cross Sound Ferry, and wrote down everything I remembered about meeting him. I realised a few days later that I should make those my lyrics. I wanted to portray this guy with this dynamic personality and I realised I could do that with my voice.’ Using his voice to tell other people’s stories provided the distance he needed to be able to start laying down vocals. ‘That was when it clicked and I started being able to write. I felt I finally saw the light of where I could be going; it still took another year of working, but at least I had seen a direction.’
Leithauser speaks as if duty bound to share the stories he had gathered, refusing to rest until he had found a fit. ‘Instead of doing what I would have done in the past, which is just to delete it all and just scrub it… I tried different lyrics on different songs.’ He persisted until the music and personalities were wed in such a way that he felt they were true to their story.
With each release, Leithauser has stepped further from the shadow of The Walkmen into something uniquely his. However, this, too, has not come easy. ‘I’d been in The Walkmen for so many years that, when we stopped, I had that feeling of… what am I gonna do? Because if I want(ed) to sound like The Walkmen, I might as well play with The Walkmen. If I’m not doing that, I really shouldn’t sound like that.’
He had to work hard to get out of his own head and ignore any preconceived ideas he felt fans might be bringing to his work. ‘I was so self consciously trying not to sound like (The Walkmen) that it sort of painted me into a corner a little. I was a little bit worried about trying to sound too rock and roll.’ Admittedly, with his voice, there were a number of avenues open to him and carving a future as a big band style singer in the vein of Sinatra seemed a real possibility. Expanding on this, he describes how ‘at one point I was thinking that I was gonna stop using rock and roll instruments. When I made Black Hours, I did a couple of songs that were just string-based and very little drums. It was really fun and I loved doing it, but then I got in a little bit deeper with it and I realised that maybe that’s not for me.’ Thankfully, the burden of being the frontman of such a revered group has gradually eased for Leithauser. ‘As time went on, I stopped worrying and also I felt like I was establishing my own sound.’
As hard as it can be to rip up the rule book and start again, it can be equally as tough for artists to stay in their lane, furrowing the trenches they dug early in their careers, and continue to excavate something new. As Leithauser reflects, ‘I think, maybe, in the end, I play rock and roll music which to me means I have a big drum set going, and I like electric guitars. I don’t use that much electronic stuff and I think that’s maybe just who I am and that’s where I’m gonna stay. I don’t see that changing.’
He is now quite philosophical in his outlook. ‘Maybe overly worrying about it is the kind of thing that manifests destiny. You worry so much about it that you can’t get away from it.’ In moving past his insecurities and accepting his own process, Leithauser has firmly established himself as a unique solo act – capable and deserving of being measured against his own personal benchmarks. Elegant and raw, his music hustles in the dust of New York sidewalks while carrying a golden prestige worthy of a home on its Broadway stages. He may view the creation of each record as a fight, but it is one he is fit for, and continues to win time and time again.
His view on what comes next is even peppered with some optimism, as he humbly shares, ‘I really do have some great music.’ Although, as if to avoid tempting fate, he is quick to add ‘you always think you can hit the ground running after you finish a record, but it’s always easier said than done. I’ve got a long way to go.’
From our conversation, coupled with his teasing posts on social media in the past few weeks, we may not have to wait too long to hear the results of his latest sparring session. Just before we hang up, he tells me, ‘I have two songs that I think would have been the lead tracks for The Loves of Your Life that I just couldn’t find a match for the lyrics. I love the songs so much and I’ve still got them.’ So, depending on how well these sessions go, he may need to think of a new name for ‘The Struggle Hut.’ Regardless, we can rest assured that he will be toiling on. ‘I would love to finish what I have, so I’m going to be trying to do that. I think it’s pretty good shit.’
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