Ali McGhee is a journalist, creative writer, and academic. Her work has appeared in The Edgar Allan Poe Review, Romantic Circles, Symbiosis: A Journal of Anglo-American Literary...
"Can I trust you now not to pull me out of this cautionary tale that you know I won't be reading?"
Dylan LeBlanc's latest album, Cautionary Tale (Single Lock Records), opens with the title track, in which LeBlanc muses on his inability--or unwillingness--to watch where he's going with the poetic insight of a man on the other side of the journey. Layered vocals swell over jangly guitar, violins, and percussion on what is perhaps the most upbeat song of the bunch. But the content here, as with all of the songs on the LP, is pensive, meditative, inflected by the maturity of someone who has stepped into the crucible of transformation in all of its fiery explosiveness and returned to tell about it. Lucky for us, he'll be in the neighborhood to share his story. LeBlanc plays West Asheville's Mothlight on Tuesday, December 6th at 9:30 pm.
If I had to sum up the theme of this album, it would be something like this: the inevitable realization that the work we must do to move forward in this life is always worth doing, even though it might kick us in the ass. The things that are worth the most in this life come with a price: the peeling away of our own layers of hiding, self-doubt, addiction, and fear, which clear the path for us to step into open space and take a breath.
LeBlanc has been playing music for most of his life, and he's got a distinctive alt-country sound that fits perfectly with his subject matter. His lilting voice, which possesses a crystalline edge that might seem frail if it weren't so steady and pure, adds an element of the ethereal to each song. It's a voice that sounds both youthful and initiated into the great suffering and love of the world. There's a world-weariness that colors songs with a melancholy haze, a filter of deep blue tones. In "Roll the Dice," he asks, "Is it really worth it to be worth anything?" It's the ephemerality of all things that LeBlanc is tracking.
But within the sense of time's inevitable passage, its erasure and constant resetting, there's also an attunement to the eternal. "Paradise," the song that closes the album, is a reflection on the love of a lifetime--after the loss of a soulmate. "Paradise is a lonely place/ in the here and now," muses the partner who remains, who buries his love in her "long white wedding gown...like you asked me too." Love doesn't end with death, and the narrator fantasizes about reuniting with his beloved "in another life where tomorrow's never found." It's appropriate for me that an album that opens with reflection on youthful blunders--and their important place in shaping the contours of a life--closes with ruminations on the unknown path ahead, which the narrator sets out upon with all the clarity of a man who has lived fully and is ready to face the future without fear.
I spoke with LeBlanc about the album and his upcoming set at Asheville's Mothlight. His quiet, thoughtful words enriched my experience of the record and my excitement for this show.
Asheville Grit (AG): You're a songwriter and a poet. I'm always interested to know how you decide something will become a song versus a poem. What does that process look like for you?
Dylan LeBlanc (DL): Well, for me, I write songs that tell a story and are straightforward, but I think you can do anything with poetry. You can hint at something or write it in stream-of-consciousness, for example. But my songs are more direct. I have something to say in them.
AG: Can you talk about your background and evolution as a musician? Clearly you were influenced a lot by your childhood and upbringing, particularly your father, a songwriter. What was the biggest thing you learned from him about taking this on as your career?
DL: He always said that if you wanna be a musician and a songwriter, you gotta work at it. Like lawyers practice law and doctors practice medicine, you practice writing songs and playing your guitar. I looked at it that way and I always wanted to become better. I wrote as much as I could all the time, especially in my younger days. I started out writing and playing every single day, so I could make progress every day and do something productive every day, writing or creating something.
AG: You're a writer--are you a reader as well? What do you like to read? Does it influence your music and songwriting?
DL: Lately I've mostly been reading self-help/self-transformation books. When I was a teenager I got into the whole Southern gothic literary movement: John Kennedy O' Toole, William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Cormac McCarthy, people like that. People who wrote interesting things. For sure it comes into the music in little small doses. I was very influenced by those types of literary movements.
AG: Can you talk about your identity as a Southern musician? How does life in the South inform your songwriting?
DL: I grew up in Shreveport, LA. I didn't have a lot of money, and it was the 1990s. Things hadn't progressed as far as they have now, especially not in the South. There was weird conflict in the air with black and white people. There was a lot of racism and a lot of heavy religious stuff, hellfire and damnation. I went to a Baptist church and it scared the shit out of me. A lot of sinister things were floating around. But at the same time there was pure beauty in the summertime. You could smell the honeysuckle, the air was sweet. It was beautiful and sinister at the same time. It's more of a feeling that seeps into my music, the feeling of those experiences.
AG: That's a good segue to my next question. Many songs bring up religion and spirituality, which also seems also to be flavored by the South, as you were just talking about. Can expand on this? There also seems to be a difference between the religions and morals of others (the notion of "sin" that comes up in songs like "Man Like Me," and of being "the man with no religion" in "Lightning and Thunder") and your own beliefs. What has your spiritual evolution been?
DL: I was a very spiritually confused person until about 21, and then I kind of threw it all away and just said forget about it, whatever. It doesn't work for me, the whole Christianity thing, just because I never could live up to it. I always felt like I was bad, and I had that guilt thing happening like a lot of people I know. I started looking at it from a different perspective. They make God out to be so human; the whole concept of punishment/reward makes God oh so human. I looked away from that God and started trying to find something else.
For me, God is something else all together. It's not good, not bad, it just is, and I don't know what it is and I don't have to know. I just know that there's a power greater than me and it's not me. That's my own personal view. That's where I've landed so far. I try to take everything in and stay as present as possible. I feel the closest to God when I'm present, in learning and in my own life, and far away when I'm not present. I feel anxious and nervous, but when I accept the moment and stay in it no matter the circumstances everything feels better.
AG: I read that you have a meditation practice. Is that spiritual for you?
DL: It's about constantly having to come up with things and be creative. It's important to turn the mind off and not think about anything at all for as long as I can.
AG: I loved the song "Paradise," which closes the album. It brings everything together so well with these ideas of a life lived, love, and death. Was that song informed by any particular experience?
DL: I went to St. Augustine, Florida, with the girl I was seeing and visited her grandmother. She was widowed the year previously and they were married something like 60 years, they were in their 90s i think. He was 96 when he died, and I just thought 'Wow, what a trip to have been with someone that long and then that person isn't there anymore. How strange.' And I imagined myself as an old man at a point when someone who was a constant in my life was gone after I had them for so long. I thought about how strange that must feel. I wrote that song and tried to think about how when you're in such a beautiful place with someone, and then they're gone, that 'paradise is a lonely place in the here and now.' But in the end when they die and are reunited, 'paradise will be the only place in the here and now.' So it's heaven I guess. I was trying to be romantic.
AG: How did the title of the album become Cautionary Tale? Do you see the whole album as a 'cautionary tale' for others? For yourself? Is it functioning as a reminder? It's interesting that it's a tale you "won't be reading." Can you talk about that?
DL: The concept of that song and the record is about becoming more aware. Nobody really wants to know the solution to whatever problem they have. They just want to put a Band-Aid on it. People who are depressed just get prescribed antidepressants, but don't want to investigate why they feel the way they feel. People identify so much with their own circumstances and situations that those become a part of their being; they become who they are as opposed to these things just being products of a situation.
It's like that George Harrison song, "All Things Must Pass." People identify with certain things and it makes them who they are, when it's really just things that happen to you. It's not who you are. You get addicted to pain, suffering, and the identity of who you think you are due to what's happened to you. That becomes your story and it's hard to break away. I'm not saying that I'm a person who's never experienced that, because I have, and it's hard. It has a lot to do with my own personal experience.
Cautionary Tale is mostly about the idea that things happen in cycles and will repeat themselves. It's like the law of inertia. Our heritages and the way we are, the way people teach their children, keep going until somebody makes a change or runs into a block. Until you hit something and go in another direction, you will continue to do things the same way and your circumstances will continue. As far as relationships go, if you can't ever realize something's wrong with you you're probably in trouble. You will experience the same shit. It's a universal law, and nobody wants to know about that. So they get to addicted to their own suffering.
AG: Now that you're in recovery from addiction, how do you feel your writing and music has shifted? How is it to be a musician in a world that is filled with the substances you've moved away from?
DL: Drugs and alcohol never ate at me creatively, so it hasn't really shifted anything. But I think that, personally, when you're not drunk you can't help but grow and become conscious of things. These things submerge you in a haze and you can't really grow, you just sort of stay wherever you're at emotionally. It blocks you.
AG: What do you love about playing in Asheville?
DL: There are so many good things about Asheville. I think, first of all, that it's a gorgeous city. It's beautiful. And the people in Asheville are genuine fans of music. Crowds are really good and very attentive, very lively. That's a big plus.
Catch Dylan LeBlanc Tuesday night at the Mothlight. The Pollies open. Tickets are $7--grab them here. Listen to Cautionary Tale on Spotify and iTunes.