First Time Feeling, the new album from Leah Blevins, radiates with driving groove, subtle countrypolitan flourishes, and deep breaths of Laurel Canyon reverb. The native of Sandy Hook, Kentucky makes startling use of a voice calibrated with natural charm and an emotional vulnerability that goes toe to toe with Music City’s top heavyweights. Recorded at Modern Electric Sound Recorders in Dallas, TX with Paul Cauthen and Texas Gentleman Beau Bedford at the reins, Blevins balances between a pop aesthetic and a skin-close maturity, navigating her performance with almost supernatural precision. But it’s the songs themselves that linger longest between the breaks as Leah (pronounced like the Roy Orbison song) revels in her own history to light lyrical candles against the darkness and ultimately, through her own realizations, bid bittersweet farewell to the shadows.
AI- Your entire family plays music. When you decided to make the journey to Nashville full time, was there encouragement from the family side?
LB- Everyone on my mom’s side of the family is very much, like you said, musically inclined and what have you, but they’re also very much involved with the church. So me leaving town to go play in honky tonks wasn’t their ideal way of me doin’ things! But after being here for the amount of time that I have, and they see that it’s not just a pipe dream, I suppose, they were definitely supportive! Anything to allow me to define my own happiness!
That divide between the church and the honky tonk that you talk about, a lot of that autobiographically gets covered in the song “Magnolia”. Church, family, song, just a dash of social commentary in there…
That’s for certain! When we wrote that song– the girl that I wrote the track with, she was from a small town as well, and kinda had a similar upbringing and backstory– we were tryin’ to in our own way to implicate that through song, which I feel like we did effectively.
Oh, yeah, wonderful! You can see the whole thing unfold throughout the song, which you can do, remarkably, visually, throughout the album. You can literally see the scenes unfolding. I saw a story where you made a statement a few years ago about having an understanding of yourself as a singer at that point in time. I would call what you do vocal acrobatics. What have you learned about yourself as a singer making this album?
I feel like my whole life, I was a background vocalist, so it’s been a lot of push and pull with me developing my own solo voice or lead voice if you will. I feel like with this record, that was me coming into my own and without using an abrasive way of bein’ like, “Okay, now I’m here.” I feel like the songs can speak for themselves and the growth that it’s taken to get from a few years back to current date. I think it’s just timing and really putting in the hard work.
Paul Cauthen, one of the producers of note for the record, is also known as a vocal acrobat. How much input did he have in your stylings when it came to doing some of those songs? Because I hear a lot of the same little applications that he often uses.
That’s a great observation! Actually, throughout the entire process, the only note that comes to mind is he just wanted me to be able to understand that the importance of pronouncing my words, which I’d never had anyone say that. In the past, I’ve had a lot of people comment on the way that I sang too country, and so I tried to manipulate my voice to sound more pop. So this was a beautiful experience in that regard too, just ’cause I felt so free. I felt like throughout our recording sessions, I’d kinda nudge him and be like, “Is there anything I need to do?” And he just let me be in my own skin and allowed me to be free! I really do feel that was the one thing that let me feel like there was no restraint.
Was this the first time that you had worked with Paul in that capacity? I know you two met several years back but was this the first project that you had officially been a part of together?
Yeah. We had co-written one time when I toured with him on a small run, but this is the first time in this capacity recording and all that goes with that.
What brought it together?
I’d kept my head down for a couple years workin’ as a cook in a kitchen and just writin’ and tryin’ to feel out where I needed to be. There was a lot of personal stuff that had gone on and it was really like me entertaining producers in town. I just knew that I was ready to make that step into recording. ‘Cause it can get in a place of just bein’ in your own head, but I committed to workin’ with Paul. And then I kind of reneged and was like, “I think I’m gonna have to just wait this out.” And then lo and behold, I just followed my heartstrings and was like, “I think it’s time I just do something completely different than I’ve ever done and go outside of Nashville.” I had heard of the Texas Gentlemen and Paul for years, and I just loved everything as far as what they had been pushing through Modern Electric. That’s the studio we did it at.
Yeah, that’s a wonderful room! I love so many records that come out of there! You bring up the Texas Gentlemen. Beau Bedford, who also shares production credit on the record– was that part of the trepidation? Having to leave Nashville, a place that you’ve called home for almost a decade now? Was that part of the reason why you let it simmer so long instead of comin’ to a full boil?
I don’t think it was initially the way we wanted to go about things. It just kind of happened. It was like an organically driven connection, organically driven understanding and then we all just made it happen! I just didn’t anticipate having the band that we had, the experience, all of those things, especially going outside of town. ‘Cause it’s like, “Why would I feel it necessary?” And it wasn’t that I initially, again, felt that way. It just kind of all unfolded and unraveled in the most beautiful way!
So you headed to Dallas early last year, mid-January, somewhere to that tune, to go out to Modern Electric and get started. You talk about having ‘that’ band. Tell me about the band– who was a part of the process?
We did two separate sessions, the first one of which we knocked out a majority of the songs. That was October of 2019. Then went back again in January of 2020 and the band– in Paul’s world, he calls ’em the Hot Grease Fire– is his touring band. I had been on tour with them, so they kinda had heard the songs prior to then. It just all fell into place once we got there ’cause they already originally worked together. It was almost like that was the secret sauce, obviously, with having the band and them all being so familiar with each other. ‘Cause a lot of the time you can just bring in random session players, and there’s not that essence. It’s a different charm goin’ on!
What did you have song-wise at that point in time? Was there a clear plan and the songs ready or was the situation more fluid? Were you able to kinda create as you went?
I think it was, in my opinion, a mixture of all that. We definitely were back and forth as much as we could be via text and tryin’ to hash out all these things. Again, to echo what I said, Paul and the gang had heard those songs. So they had it, I think subconsciously in their brains. Beau and I had never really got to sit down and hash out songs. He was, I would like to add, another part of the secret sauce and all of this! He’s a wizard of his craft! But I feel as though it was a mixture of both goin’ in with some sort of direction and then we’d get together that morning and allow it to flow.
You brought up having been told that sometimes you sound too country and then trying to find that balance of country and pop. I think that there is really an amazing balance of sound on this record, which allows you to still utilize your voice while having a much grander production. I think that reaches across multiple genres. Of course, where I’m at, we’d lump it under the Americana banner and run with it. What about you? How do you feel the music coming across for this album?
I feel like it’s a mixture of all of the heroes and influences that I’ve had along the way. That being Stevie Nicks, The Byrds, Loretta Lynn. My dad always listened to the band Bread and the Eagles and the Beatles. So it was heavy 12-strings throughout, and I don’t know if you listen to past stuff, but I just always couldn’t quite find what I was trying to convey production-wise. Just knowing the way of the Cauthen records and how they implemented certain sounds throughout, it was more sonically driven in that Texas outlaw way of doin’ things too. It was pullin’ from all different facets of genres and influences of my path– and just how I form a song! Once I shed the insecurity or self-esteem issues of, “Am I a singer? Am I capable of doing this? Will my peers see me as an equal?” I was confident enough to be able to write a song and bring it to somebody. I think everything else fell into place.
I asked about singing and your understanding of yourself as a singer. What about as a songwriter? You’ve had time to sit with these songs a little bit since they were recorded before the grand release. Tell me what you have been writing about recently. Are you still exploring more of the personal? Has the world around you crept into your writing? How do you see yourself progressing today?
Just tryin’ to make it not so complicated in terms of words, ’cause I can overuse words. At 31, I’m just tryin’ to get the point across and have an impactful melody to where it pulls whatever person it needs to pull. I feel as though now I’m just writing more. If I see a movie, I pull something from that. I heard something today, just listening to a podcast, I was like, “Whoa, that could be something much more epic than just a line in a podcast!” So I don’t think it’s so much me drawing from my own personal issues. It’s more or less just bigger picture looking up and seeing what’s around me.
I’m glad you brought up the idea of drawing from a movie. I love the song “Clutter” on the new album. I think it has a very David Lynch-ian, Twin Peaks tone to it.
The drop baritone guitar sounds and the background chorus, that has a very cinematic feel to me.
Thank you! I can’t take all the credit for that. I can say that I wrote that song. That was the last one that I had put on or had sent to the guys before we started goin’ at all this. But, yeah, that was one of my proudest songs ’cause the chorus for me felt like I was trying to touch base on a more of a… I could never compare myself to John Prine, but I just wanted to have that essence.