There will always be a soft spot in my heart for Southern Gothic sensibilities. That’s not to say I’m someone who revels in angst-ridden alienation or anything of that nature, but there’s a perverse appeal to the generally dark humor of a true Southern Gothic life. It’s hard living to the occasional point of masochism, only to kick back and relax while laughing at the calamitous irony of life. In other words, the South is a strange place, unique in and of itself. Many people struggle to understand it (with good reason), while others, like Dylan LeBlanc, manage to empathize, embody, and disseminate it from a more palatable perspective. LeBlanc has a distinct view of the Deep South and that Southern Gothic sensibility, and manages to purvey it and the stories of those within it throughout his latest LP, Renegade. There are countless stories of unbelievable grit and sentimentality throughout the South, and LeBlanc managed to capture all of it on both Renegade and our conversation. There’s m
any a fine anecdote to follow. Enjoy.
Now/It’s met with Dylan LeBlanc at the Sacks & CO. Nashville offices in Downtown Nashville.
N/I - How are you, Dylan?
Dylan - I’m good, man. How are you?
N/I - I’m doing well.
Dylan - You live here?
N/I - I do live here.
Dylan - I guess that would make sense, you writing for Now/It’s: Nashville….
N/I - That’s true. So how long have you been here in Nashville?
Dylan - I’ve been living here on and off for five years. I was here in 2013 for about a year. Or for the year. Then I moved to Florence, Alabama for a couple of years and then I moved to Louisiana and back here and back to Louisiana and then back here, so I’m back here again.
N/I - Do you like the transient life? Just following wherever it takes you?
Dylan - I don’t know. I feel antsy wherever I’m at. I feel like I’ve always got to be moving somewhere. But I’m getting more settled here, now that I’m getting older. It’s just practical for me to be here. The business is here…. Even though, where I’d love to be would be South Louisiana. That’s my favorite place in the world. But here makes more sense. And I love it here. I have a good crew of people here.
N/I - Outside of being from Louisiana, what about Southern Louisiana has more appeal than elsewhere?
Dylan - I just dig the culture. I like the fact that people never talk about politics. People are just living life. It’s kind of off the grid. People like to go out and dance. I like that people aren’t staring at their phones wherever you go. People are very much interactive with one another. I like the art that is very important to people there. The music. The quirkiness of it. Everything’s extremely old, the culture’s very old, but there’s very little discrimination. Because, Cajun people are kind of on the same level as black people back in the day, and those are my people - Cajun people. All my family is buried in New Iberia, which is an old Spanish town founded in like the late 1500s. Cajun people could kind of get along with everybody, the blacks, the whites, the natives. They were fisherman, they lived out the Atchafalaya Basin, so that’s kind of where I come from. But it’s interesting, because I grew up in Shreveport, which is northwest, because my grandfather moved up there to work at the glass factory.
N/I - And Shreveport’s a little more established. It’s a “big” town….
Dylan - Yes. It’s a metropolitan area, with busses and you can get anywhere with public transportation. It’s probably 300,000 or so. But down in South Louisiana, it’s a little bit smaller and more spread out. I lived in Breaux Bridge for a couple of years, and Lafayette for a little while. I just liked it down there. Everything is like True Detective.
N/I - Sure. Wasn’t that the area the first season was set in? All around there?
Dylan - It was. It’s just really cool. I missed it. I grew up going down there and living there. I never thought I would live there as I got older. So when I did, it was kind of a “wow” moment. My friend has this amazing [bed and breakfast], and I lived in the house when I was writing all of this [new record]. It was just so quiet. I moved into a little old, old house in downtown Breaux Bridge. It was kind of secluded from everybody, and lived there for about a year. Did a lot of writing there. It was great. Totally focused. There was a coffee shop down the street, a pizza place.
N/I - So I know with writing the album, you met a lot of “characters.” Is that where you met a lot of those people?
Dylan - Yeah. I met a lot of people in New Orleans. Just on the streets, spending time with people, playing there… I played there a lot.
N/I - Just random drop-ins?
Dylan - Random drop ins. Just hanging out, and stuff like that. Talking to crazy people. And you meet all sorts of people who have lived really hard. [New Orleans] is a really hard town.
N/I - I mean, a lot of the South is, in general.
Dylan - It is. Look at Memphis.
N/I - Absolutely. There’s something beautiful about that fact.
Dylan - There is. So I met a lot of characters all around there. I grew up kind of poor in Shreveport, Louisiana. It was just me, my mom, and my sister for the first ten years of my life. We went a predominantly African American school, so I was immersed in that culture from an early age. I loved it. And it was very strange, almost a culture shock when I moved to Alabama. There was hardly any of that. It was non-existent, almost.
N/I - And that would have been where? Florence?
Dylan - Yeah. Well, it would have been Muscle Shoals proper, because we lived…. I went to Muscle Shoals Middle School. I finished out my fifth grade year in Muscle Shoals at McBride, and then went on to Muscle Shoals Middle School. It was totally different. Everything was a lot cleaner and I remember that the lunch room had amazing food. When you grow up in the public school system of Louisiana, there’s no money, so it’s terrible….
N/I - So it was basically night and day.
Dylan - The lunch ladies are cussing at you [laughs].
N/I - It’s a rude awakening for a kid.
Dylan - Yeah! But it’s great at the same time, because you feel like you’re on the same playing field with everybody.
N/I - Absolutely.
Dylan - Especially from an economic standpoint. If you’re poor, everyone else is poor. So I never felt out of place until I moved out of there. Until Muscle Shoals. And black people keep it real on a whole other level. There’s very little pretense, they’ll tell you exactly how they feel. So growing up like that was great, because all my friends were black. It was awesome. I missed that. So growing up there was totally different. There was a lot of soul and feel and vibes.
N/I - So when you come to Nashville and have all these stories, do you see people being as open in Nashville as you do down in Southern Louisiana?
Dylan - You know, Nashville’s a big city. And it’s a progressive city. People’s train of thought is on something totally different. Down there, people’s train of thought is all life. Whereas people here are trying to get ahead. People down there are exactly where they want to be. They’re not searching for anything more than what they already have. That’s one of the things I love about being down there. But here, it’s the hustle. You’re trying to get ahead in the music business, you’re trying to get ahead in your corporate job….
N/I - Real estate.
Dylan - Absolutely real estate. Or management. So it’s that mentality, which is a totally different mentality. And I do think intimacy with another human does get lost when that’s the case. The thing that’s great about Nashville is the actual arts community itself. That’s the thing that stands out about Nashville to me. People really support each other here in the artist community. People really back each other up, share each other’s songs on social media. They try to help each other. And people are genuinely nice here. Whereas, in South Louisiana, it can get a little clique-y, because it’s a small area, and if you’re an outsider, they’ll treat you as a visitor. But I was always happy to play that role, because I don’t speak French. I’m not a part of that scene, so I was happy to be a visitor and enjoy their culture as a visitor. But I still loved it. I loved being there. I still felt very much a part of everything. It’s great. But it’s also different. This city has the “big city” vibe, and people’s ambitions are different.
N/I - Sure. There’s the “big city” vibe and then it’s got the “I want to be a bigger city” ambition.
Dylan - [Laughs] Yeah! They’re breaking everything and they’re tearing everything down, it’s kind of sad.
N/I - So with all these different stories, all these different experiences, all the talking to people, I want to talk to you about the song where you recall talking to a woman once caught up in prostitution and human trafficking….
Dylan - “Domino.”
N/I - “Domino.” How do you go about writing from someone else’s perspective, especially one that’s so intense?
Dylan - You have to take liberties that are kind of nerve wracking….
N/I - Well that’s why I asked, because that’d be incredibly difficult.
Dylan - I could never imagine that way of life. So you just take liberties. You just tell the story. I remember her telling me her story and I was just sitting there like “Wow.” And you never know how full of shit somebody is, especially in that city. Which is fine. You never know, but she seemed pretty sincere as we were just chatting. We were just talking. I thought about how interesting and different that would be. To live like that. Her telling me that she was always in danger and having to make enough money to support her children. She had children that she was picking up from school. She was living this other life too, but also having this guy who was sort of managing her and threatening her life or her children’s. To me, it was a perspective that I thought “Wow.” And being in New Orleans, things like that happen all the time. That city is dangerous. That city is beautiful in the way that it’s seen everything that’s ever happened to this country. It’s seen Spanish influenza, yellow fever, the Black Plague, it’s lived through everything, hurricanes…. It’s a city I love being in because of how resilient and tough the people are, and the attitude is that nobody gives a shit about anything. You can be whoever you want to be in that city, and nobody’s going to care. But at the same time, nobody really pays attention to what’s going on with people who might be in need. So I just felt compelled to write that song about her, because it felt like that story needed to be told. It’s a story you get moved by. It’s also good to offer up women’s perspectives. I’m not a woman, so I can’t fully understand it, but it moved me to want to write about it.
N/I - That’s a beautiful thing.
Dylan - It is, but at the same time, it’s difficult. You can’t write a twenty minute song, so trying to paint a picture with all this nuance and detail to fit into a three minute and thirty second song is difficult. You want to do it justice. I’m sure I wrote ten verses or twenty verses to that song, but you just narrow it down to where you get the picture.
N/I - It’s kind of like short fiction. I don’t know if you read a lot of short fiction….
Dylan - Not that much.
N/I - Well there’s this guy, Raymond Carver….
Dylan - I’ve heard of him.
N/I - He’s very much known for taking what is a pretty big concept but wittling it down to the barest of bones. Supposedly he would write and subtract pages or passages from fifty down to about seven. I can’t imagine doing that, especially as someone who does long form interviews….
Dylan - [Laughs] True. But the work ethic in that, you have to respect it. That’s serious.
N/I - Well there’s commitment either way, song, short fiction, or long form.
Dylan - Absolutely.
N/I - So it sounds like a lot of the album itself and the songs in general lean in on looking at the underutilized perspectives, underrepresented perspectives - is that something you set out to do?
Dylan - Yeah. I hate being political, but there are so many things going on right now that are relevant to the times that we’re living in, and there are things that we need to say as people are moving forward. Especially being a sensitive person. I’m a sensitive person, by nature. You feel that shift in the world. You want to write about the shift that’s happening, and all the artists that came before us have done that in some form or another. But it’s important to keep it vague enough that it’s accessible for anyone and also not alienating anyone for whatever reason. It’s a hard medium to find. I’m pretty accepting of everyone, so as long as you’re not hurting people, that’s important.
N/I - Absolutely.
Dylan - Especially being an alcoholic, I’ve hurt people myself. You start wanting to move forward from that behavior. You want to be unabashedly real about things, especially instead of trying to make yourself look better in a situation. When you look at something where you don’t make excuses for yourself, it’s easy to move forward from there. Because then you can see it for what it really is.
N/I - You lose the pretense. You lose the facades that you put up to endorse what you think is the real version of you.
Dylan - And it’s been hard for me, personally, to do that. Just to make that shift and do that by myself and put my finger in my own face and say “Hey. This is where you’re wrong.” And admitting it and trying to move forward and learn. On an individual level, trying to take care of yourself. There have been relapses over the years. I still struggle with it, but as long as you’re trying to move forward with it, it feels good. I’m trying to better myself, or write about things that are happening in the world and telling people about it. Getting out of myself, period. It’s important for me to do, just being out of self entirely and into better things.
N/I - I agree with that entirely. I would imagine that in a weird way, it probably presents a feeling of being present in the moment, because you have to take it as it’s coming as opposed to trying to look beyond it.
Dylan - Exactly. And I’ve got a great band who are really supportive. They’ve been playing with me for three years, and they’ve been with me since it’s been really hard and really tough, and they’ve stuck with me when there have been some really hard times. So I’m lucky to have a good support system. They’re awesome.
N/I - And they were all a part of this record, right?
Dylan - They made this new record with me. It was the first record we did together as a band. Their band is The Pollies. And they’ve been playing with me for three years, and we hit the road real hard playing and touring pretty much nonstop for three years. And in between that, it was so hard to find the time to go ahead and write these songs. So I’m just getting right into, but it was really hard to write these songs, because I felt like I had nothing to say. When you’re touring so much, I’m not good at multitasking with touring and writing on the road. Because you’re totally rolling or you’re in the hotel and the last thing you want to do when you put down your guitar after a show is pick it back up….
N/I - And get back in that mindset all of a sudden.
Dylan - It’s difficult. I know people who do that and their work ethic is unbelievable to me. It’s impressive, but I have to have total quiet and a couple days to decompress and get my creative thing going. It’s a discipline for me. So these songs, for this record, I wanted them to be more commercially accessible. So that meant shorter. And I wanted it to be a rock n roll record. The Pollies are such a great rock n roll band that it just naturally evolved that way. Musically it was easier to hash things out together than it was to do it on my own, which was interesting. I write all these songs, but I bring the basic bones and then we work it out. It was great.
N/I - Sure. It’s great to have that support not only on the human level, but also the creative level. That’s hard to come by, especially with a group of people you’ve only worked with for all of about three years. That’s a special thing.
Dylan - It is, but I’ve known them for fifteen years.
N/I - Ah, okay. Now it makes a little more sense.
Dylan - The guitar player, Jay, and I had a band from back when I had just dropped out of high school. And we toured the Southeast. And John and I - he’s the drummer - we had a band together, and then Clint and I grew up together in Shreveport, so he’s from that area, and he plays keys. So I’ve known him since he was fifteen, sixteen. So we’ve all known each other for a really long time, and we’ve all been friends for a really long time. It’s cool to be in a band with your friends. These are my closest friends. We kind of get each other, to the point of if someone’s being pushed to the limit, and you know they need a minute to themselves, it’s so easy to tour together, because we understand each other and respect each other to the point that it’s like “Oh, he needs a second. Let him breathe.” We ride well together, and we play well together, because we’ve all had so many shows together, it was a cohesive thing where you don’t have to think about it, you just do it. Luckily, I’ve finally got a group where I can be that with. Now I’ve just got it, and I love them so much. I can’t imagine not making music with them. We always figure it out, even if it takes a few days. Sometimes, I’ll sell them a little bit short, but they always prove me wrong.
N/I - Always surpass expectations.
Dylan - It’s like “What was I ever fucking worried about?” For some of the songs on this record, it’s got some parts that are really complex. None of us are the best players in the world - John’s a great drummer and Spencer’s a great bass player, but we’re getting better as musicians. So it was like “What are we going to do when this challenge comes?” And we had nothing to worry about. And of course, Dave Cobb being there helped us a lot.
N/I - I would imagine so.
Dylan - He was like “Just play!” It was really relaxed. So we just played. At least five of the songs we had been playing live for at least a year. Though, he did rearrange a bunch of things. We were so used to a situation where we did have to change something up that we were so cohesive that we knew we could do it. It was really fun. But before it, I probably lost half my head of hair, because I was so stressed out. I had never worked with Dave Cobb, but of course, you know who he’s worked with and it’s intimidating. But he was really cool…. Sorry, I’m digging into the creation side of the record….
N/I - No need to apologize. It’s great.
Dylan - It’s just to me, that’s the most important part.
N/I - Absolutely. Dig in all you want.
Dylan - Great. It was super fun. What was so surprising was that Cobb let [The Pollies] do their thing. I had to talk him into it at first, because he was like “I got these other guys, they’re great,” but I was like, “Let my guys give it a shot one time, and if you don’t like it, fine.” And he agreed to that, and it never got spoken of again. It worked out.
N/I - That’s incredible. Did you tell The Pollies what the deal was with Dave?
Dylan - I did. I was completely transparent, because I didn’t want them to not know. They had been busting their ass with me for so long, and I really wanted them to be a part of this record, just because of how much they put into it and with me. I told them “Guys, I hate to do it….” but I didn’t want a situation where all of a sudden it was like “Yeah, you guys aren’t going to cut it.” So they knew the deal, we needed to go in and there and kill, otherwise, Dave Cobb is sending everyone home.
N/I - I would imagine that’ll light a fire under most people.
Dylan - They all were like “Well, we don’t want that to happen, but we understand.” It hurt my heart to tell them that, but I think they respected me more for it, which is what I was hoping would happen, and luckily it all worked out. You know how it is, we’re all sensitive. We want to be a part of everything, but they were cool. And they love me, thank god. They were like “We don’t think it’ll be an issue, but we’ll play ball. We’ll do what we need to do.” It was great, and we went in and it was never discussed again. And Cobb was super cool, too. He got along with them really well. He really let them do their thing, which was cool. As much as letting me do the my thing. I think I was the biggest bitch out of the whole thing.
N/I - [Laughs] Why is that?
Dylan - I was just talking about needing to rethink things and Cobb would tell me “This is the difference between this much success and this, and if you make that the chorus, that will help the record. That’s what people want to hear.” So I paid attention and I listened. I really let him do his thing. But he was good about being firm and letting us do what we’ve been doing and what we’ve been doing really well. And I really respected him more for it after the process was over. He knows what he’s doing. It’s hard to let your creativity and your work go into someone else’s hands, but when you do it, it’s amazing how good it feels.
N/I - You’re no longer the task master.
Dylan - Exactly. I’m not the final dude. I’m not the arbiter of taste here. I don’t know what’s great. I don’t know what’s always going to be the best option. I might have an idea, but having someone else makes it easier. You’re in more accordance with the universe. Let it flow. Let other people be them and let their personalities come into it, and I think everybody’s personalities came into this one. That’s what’s cool to me.
Photo credit - Alysse Gafkjen