Jerry Leger and the Situation

Farewell Ghost Town

(Self-released; 2006)

By Kate Steele | 22 October 2007

When I get sent promos from artists I've never heard of, I try to guess what they will sound like before I listen to the album. You can often tell just by the cover -- the band's name, the quality of the packaging and the press release, the song titles, etc. -- whether or not it's going to be your thing. On the cover of Jerry Leger's new album Farewell Ghost Town is a sepia-toned photograph of a serious-looking young man in a suit. He stands outside a brick building holding a suitcase, casting an uncertain glance down the block. Its evocative, 1940s film-noir feel inspired me to listen to the album right away.

Leger's voice leaps out immediately; it's high, nasally, and pinched, the kind of voice that wouldn't make it through the first round of an Idol competition. But, as you might imagine, this is a good thing. Fuelled by the Situation's tight and controlled backing, Leger ploughs through the opener "Hat on Your Head" with caustic intensity. He sustains this vocal force throughout the album on both the rockers and the ballads. Like all successful, unique voices, Leger's ability to captivate and transport with his imperfect voice lies in his delivery. At all times focused on phrasing, Leger squeezes every scrap of meaning out of his carefully-wrought lyrics.

That brings me to Leger's real strength: his songwriting. His facility at telling reflective and convincing stories defies his age (he's 22). "Hat on Your Head" is an uproarious battle cry against being regarded by a lover as nothing but an amusing accessory: "I know you want me hanging off that hook / Constantly waiting for your precious look." Its raw, cutting energy is reminiscent of My Aim Is True (1977)-era Costello. "Love is Meant To Be Blue" is a gorgeous, Everly Brothers inspired rumination on, well, just what the title suggests. A haunting, jazzy kiss-off to a fickle relationship, "Old Shoes On My Feet" features some cool, understated piano by Ron Sexsmith.

With Farewell Ghost Town, Leger proves that he's got the chops to be around for awhile. When one of Canada's most accomplished and enduring singer-songwriters -- Sexsmith -- is calling you "one of the best songwriters [he's] heard in a long time," it'd seem like it's just a matter of time before your ship comes in, right? I hope so -- and clearly so does the currently unsigned Leger, who recently spoke with me in-depth about his past, present, and possible future as a musician:

CMG: How are things going? You’re in Toronto?

Leger: Yeah, things are good. I’ve been awake for a little while now. I was just playing a little Super Mario Brothers with my girlfriend Tara.

CMG: Oh yeah? How’s that for you?

Leger: Pretty fun, you know.

CMG: Are you from Toronto?

Leger: Born and raised. I even lived in the same house for most of my life. My parents never moved, so it was kind of all I knew until I moved out. So I never experienced moving situations like many other people. I don’t know if that’s good -- I’m sure it is.

CMG: How old are you?

Leger: I’m twenty-two.

CMG: Your pictures don’t really betray how old you are...

Leger: Yeah, I’m a pup. Well, I kind of grew up around a lot of older people, and when I started playing music and sneaking into bars, the people I met were obviously older than me and I just kind of connected with them more. So usually I was hanging out with guys who were five, ten years -- double my age. I think a lot of people around me that were my age didn’t really share my love for music. Music’s always been a huge part of my life and that musical interest wasn’t really shared by a lot of other people. All these people I listened to were kind of secrets, like hidden gems that I knew about and nobody else did I started going out and meeting people who shared the same love and it was really great.

CMG: So who’d you listen to in high school that you felt was secret?

Leger: I’d always heard people like Bob Dylan and Neil Young through my dad but it was really until I was in about grade nine or ten that I started getting heavily into on my own. It’s kind of like, you think it’s your own little secret. I started listening to people like Dylan and Costello and Tom Waits. I felt like I knew what Dylan was talking about.

CMG: Yeah, I can relate. When I was about fourteen, “Positively 14th Street” really spoke to me.

Leger: Yeah, we’ve all got enough hatred at that age.

CMG: I hadn’t listened to that song for a really long time and I was trying to learn it a little while ago. The lyrics are so great, but I started thinking, “Wow. That was pretty intense to be feeling so much angst and rage at fourteen.”

Leger: I’d hate to be the person that you were aiming that angst at.

CMG: Yeah, I had a bit of a rough year. My dad would always pull out the right record at the right time, though. So, when did you start playing music?

Leger: A guitar first came into the house through my sister-in-law. She brought it over originally for my brothers to learn how to play. I have three brothers, and two of them were still living at home and wanted to play guitar so I used to fiddle around on it. Then my brother started giving me lessons -- I was about ten or eleven. But it was really frustrating, I couldn’t do it. Every second he’d come in and say “Are you practicing? Are you practicing the chords?” So I just kind of gave up. A few months later during the summer I stole their guitar book and learned some chords. So I started making up songs once I remembered the chords -- I didn’t want to just sit there strumming. And then over the next few years I wrote more songs that were horrible. It wasn’t until I was about sixteen or seventeen that I knew that music was what I wanted to do and I always had these crazy goals. I’d tell my friends, “By the time I’m out of high school, I’ll be signed.” Which was shooting pretty high at that time. Three and a half years ago is when I got more serious about it. I found a manager, and the writing was getting better, and I thought, “Well, I should put a backing band together.” I had a buddy who played drums, and he had a friend who played bass, and that’s how the Situation came into being.

CMG: So are you on a label now?

Leger: No, I’m a freelance artist [laughs]. I’m a free agent, is that what it is? I’m not on a label. It’s definitely on the list. I cut ties with my manager before Christmas. I’ve been really focusing on getting the right management before the record contract. I’m trying to focus on first making enough allies so a few more door might open. There’s a few options so far -- but you have to find the right guy, or the right girl. To make sure you’re in the right hands.

CMG: How did you start working with Don Kerr? Did you seek him out? Were you looking for a producer?

Leger: I knew about him through Ron Sexsmith and Tim Bovacanti. I started hearing a few records that he’d done -- a Peter Elkas album called Party of One (2004), and he was in the Rheostatics and produced a couple albums they did. And also the one he did with Ron, Destination Unknown (2005). I just loved it so much. It’s definitely one of my favourites. I just loved the sound, and the studio sounded very interesting to me, this studio on the island. It’s a Toronto island, but it’s kind of off on its own. It just sounded so secluded and nice. So I was filling out a FACTOR grant to try to get some money behind the record, and it asks about producers, and I started filling out those sections with Don’s name before I’d even asked him. I didn’t even know if he would do it.

CMG: Had you met him before?

Leger: Well, no. Oh, yeah I guess I had met him once, at some club, he and Ron were doing some songs from Destination Unknown. I met him after. But he had heard my first record through Tim Bovacanti. And they played it a lot in the touring van. So after I filled out the form, I thought I’d better get in touch, because if this goes through I’m gonna be screwed, right? So I e-mailed him, and I got a response back right away, and he said “Yeah, I’d love to. I loved the first record.”

CMG: It must be kind of nice to live in Toronto in terms, of the opportunities you must have to be around great musicians.

Leger: Yeah, the big guys. The big shots?

CMG: And they’re probably easier to meet?

Leger: In some ways. Yeah, there are definitely quite a few people here. But there are also quite a few bands. It’s constantly a huge competition, whether it’s for venues or press.

CMG: What do you think of the Toronto music scene?

Leger: Umm, yeah, it’s alright. There are bands that I like, and quite a few bands that I don’t like. I think it’s getting better. There’s more sincerity coming through in different areas. It’s just like any time or any place -- there are a lot of people doing it for the wrong reasons.

CMG: How are things going with your band?

Leger: I love and hate having a band. It’s kind of like having a relationship with three other people. Like, you get mad at each other really easily all the time.

CMG: Especially when you’re the person who’s trying to do your own thing.

Leger: Exactly. But we’re all really good friends.

CMG: What are your long-term goals with music?

Leger: I want to definitely -- well, I am making a career of it now. But I want to get to the next level of finding the right home. It’s great being independent and the record is selling well and the reviews are good and stuff, but there’s always that, even if we have a nice little indie home we could push the element a little more. Because I’d like to tour, I really would. I just want to tour under the right conditions. I don’t want to just go out there just so I can say “We’ve toured across Canada now.” You could do that three times for five, six weeks and make no money.

CMG: Or possibly lose some.

Leger: Yeah, come back in debt, and it’s like, so what, it’s on your resume? Those business guys aren’t looking for that. I was talking to a friend of mine who’s trying to get management, so he’s doing all of these crazy tours to attract them. But I’ve talked to a lot of them -- they’re not looking for that. Of course they want to know that you will tour. But they don’t necessarily need to see you tour and lose money a bunch of times. If you show them that you can do everything on your own, why do you need them in the first place? Some people can do it on their own, like Danny Michel, and that’s cool. But my business mind is horrible. I failed my business class.

CMG: When you started recording this album, did you have everything worked out beforehand, or did the songs change shape quite a bit while you were recording.

Leger: Yeah, when we got in there, a few things changed a bit. I’d figure out, “Let’s make the first chorus shorter on this song” or “Let’s do an intro.” And the song called “Ladder,” I’d just written it. I was playing it on the piano, and Don came in and was like “Hey, that’s great, we have to record that.” But nobody knew it, so we spent the next hour or two basically learning it, learning different parts. I think it turned out great on the album.

CMG: When I first started listening to the album I listened to the first half quite a bit more, just because it was what came on in my car or whatever. But the last few weeks I’ve been listening to the rest of the album. It’s a great album -- I’m really impressed with the whole thing. And that song in particular has stood out for me lately.

Leger: Yeah I like it. It’s sort of fun, but I guess the topic’s not that fun. It’s just about somebody shutting themselves off from the world, just being secluded.

CMG: So is the ladder like a crutch, is that how you mean it?

Leger: Yeah, it’s like a distraction. Something to lean on. Like, “You and your ladder” -- that kind of thing. It’s a metaphor for just staying away from the outside world and not caring.

CMG: Did you enjoy recording?

Leger: Yeah, it was great. On the island there’s this little amusement park. Most days we’d record from about ten in the morning to one in the morning, and then we’d just start walking all over the island. It’s so close to Toronto, but it feels like you’re away from home. There’s a lot of forest around. We’d sneak into this amusement park, and we had all of these security guards after us. One time we got caught. We slept on the floor of the studio and just recorded constantly. It was really hot last July. We did some overdubs in September because Ron Sexsmith wasn’t available when we were recording.

CMG: So, do you feel like he’s taken you under his wing a little bit?

Leger: Yeah, sort of. He’s definitely helped a lot, and it’s cool running into people and being able to say “Ron told me about you.”

CMG: Which of the songs on the album do you feel happiest with?

Leger: Well, I’m happy with all of them, but I think my favourite is “Love is Meant to Be Blue.” It’s kind of my Everly Brothers song. The band played great on it -- I love the pedal steel, and the piano solo. “Old Shoes” I like a lot too, and maybe “On a Bet.”

CMG: I was just going to ask you about one song, “A Long Way.” Can you talk a bit about that?

Leger: I hope I can remember what it was all about. That happens all the time, sometimes you can have ten different stories about one song.

CMG: That’s okay, you can just continue the myth-making.

Leger: I think the original concept was just like, how much freedom is there in the political world? In democracy. Basically there’s all these secrets that you don’t know about behind the scenes. It’s almost like, you strive for one thing. Whoever’s running the show, you kind of believe them at first, but then things start breaking up after awhile, and you’re kind of just left with lies. The secrets come out later and you discover that the person you were relying on wasn’t the person for the job.

CMG: So, that line “there’s no freedom” refers to how all politicians are, basically, liars?

Leger: Yeah, that’s basically it.

CMG: So who do most people say you sound like? Who are your main influences?

Leger: Yeah, my major influences are probably Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen. Gram Parsons I like a lot. Elvis Costello.

CMG: I've read that you’re influenced by all of these guys. But I think you have a really unique sound, actually. I’m not sure who I’d compare you to.

Leger: Thank you. Sometimes people compare me to other musicians I really haven’t listened to much. I’ve gotten the Flaming Lips before, and the Violent Femmes.

CMG: Yeah, I hear the Violent Femmes a bit on one song. “Too Broke to Die,” definitely.

Leger: See, I don’t even know. I’ve never really listened to them. We probably have the same influences or something.

CMG: What are you listening to these days?

Leger: I’ve been listening to a lot of old country, this box set that I actually bought my girlfriend for Christmas. It’s 100 number one country songs from 1944 to 1952. I’ve just been listening to that non-stop. To all these songs that aren’t even mentioned anymore -- these beautiful, well-written songs. Some Merle Haggard, and a lot of Hank Williams albums I’m kind of rediscovering.

Well, thanks for you time. It was really nice to talk to you.

Leger: Yeah, you too. Thanks for your interest.