David Ramirez and Dylan LeBlanc (Acoustic)
How do you write love songs when you’re heartbroken? How do you sing about hope and passionwhen yours is lost? How do you finish an album when the relationship that inspired it has ended?
During the Summer of 2017, David Ramirez had fallen in love with a woman who, despite having only just met, felt incredibly familiar to him. There was a scary but comfortable feeling of deja vu within their moments together. “In past relationships, no matter how eager I was to feel loved and to give love, there had always been a hesitation to crawl out of my old life. I didn’t feel this with her,” he recollects.
Ramirez began to pen songs for his next album and hopeful odes to new love spilled out. Songslike “Lover, Will You Lead Me?” filled with vivid images from the heart: I recognized you from some distant dream / Like when it rains on a cold day / I had a chill in my bones / Is it true what they say / “When you know, you know.”
These were followed by sultry, romantic ballads about how love matures and grows. He wrote “I Wanna Live In Your Bedroom” while sitting on his lover’s bed just minutes after waking up on a hazy fall day. “I was looking around at all the perfectly curated pieces in her room,” he says. “Everything was so intentional and held a story and a place in her heart. I wanted to be one of those pieces.”
One after another, Ramirez poured his soul into a new work of art that covered both the sweet parts of love and the hard times it can bring. He wrote about potential, survival, hope, and encouragement. He wrote about partnership.
But art is often bred from spontaneity and suffers under the confines of routines and borders. This is a conflicting dynamic that can cause massive problems when you’re building a partnership, when you’re part of a team. A seeming “whatever” attitude can foster insecurity and doubt in a lover. As more and more troubles emerged in his relationship, Ramirez found solace still at the tip of his pen, holding his guitar, sitting at his piano.
“I was born in August of 1983 just days after Hurricane Alicia had hit my hometown of Houston. As my relationship began ripping at the seams, I started to think of this storm as a precursor to my being born,” Ramirez confides. “Was there something in the universe that imprinted a characteristic of chaos in my blood during my last few days in the womb? Was I destined to wreak havoc everywhere I went?
”Soon, the relationship that had inspired a new burst of creativity in Ramirez and moved him to start writing an album unlike any he had ever attempted before, came to an end. And with that ending, he still had one last song to write. His heart exhausted, he sat on his patio one night and tried to process all of the lyrics that he knew he had written, yet now left him feeling like a stranger to his own story. Through tears and muffled whimpers, he started to write down all of his negative thoughts about love and put the pain of his broken heart into words. From this emotional purge, he began to see the beauty in what he had gone through: the struggle, the pain, the confusion. He soon found himself writing the lyrics that would become album standout “Hallelujah, Love Is Real!”
“I was reminded of a great line in the film Vanilla Sky, ‘The sweet is never as sweet without the sour.’ I decided to celebrate Love,” he explains. “I wasn’t gonna write about how it made me feelin that moment. I was going to write about its existence and how thankful I am having known it.”
This chapter of Ramirez’s life came to a close in the form of his forthcoming 10-song set, My Love Is A Hurricane, recorded with producer Jason Burt at Modern Electric Studios in Dallas, TX. For the first time in his career, he did no pre-production ahead of time, working from gut feelings throughout the process and spending most of his time in the studio on the edge of his seat. The resulting R&B-influenced, piano-driven production is highlighted by heavy basslines and synths with the occasional gospel backing. This experimentation with new melodies and rhythms places Ramirez’s deeply personal songwriting on top of dreamy, groove-driven landscapes that heal the heart and promote positivity while prompting listeners to want to sing (and dance) along.
My Love Is A Hurricane is Ramirez’s fifth full-length record and eighth collection of songs. Early albums like American Soil (2009) and Apologies (2012) put him on the map both locally and beyond, while his STRANGETOWN (2011) and The Rooster (2013) EPs delivered fan-favorite recordings, “Shoeboxes” and “The Bad Days respectively, that are staple singalongs at his concerts to this day. He made his Thirty Tigers debut with 2015’sFABLES, produced by Noah Gundersen, which features his most widely received single to date, “Harder to Lie.” While this earlier work landed Ramirez firmly in the singer/songwriter canon, a need to do more exploring sonically led to the expansive sound of his most recent album, We’re Not Going Anywhere(2017). Influenced by ‘80s bands like The Cars and Journey, it is lyrically reflective of the country’s intense political landscape framed from his perspective as a bi-racial American of Mexican heritage.
As songwriters evolve as people, so does their art, and that could not be more apparent than on Ramirez’s newest offering. The soundscapes utilized on My Love Is A Hurricane may be unlike any recording he has previously crafted, but it's not a departure from his journey. It's a new path created in order to tell a new story. A new canvas needed to hold the scene that his intensely personal lyrics are painting.
Dylan LeBlanc is engaging and soft-spoken in person, yet his striking new album Renegade reflects the power of his live show – one that he simply describes as rock ‘n’ roll. While the album was recorded in just 10 days and tracked in three, the intensity of the project marks the culmination of more than a decade on the road.
“I like the idea of a renegade -- branching off from society or from the structure of the way our world is designed,” he says of Renegade, his first album for ATO Records. “It felt right to call it that. I wanted to write about the crueler, nasty aspects of the world and life.”
LeBlanc’s observations are woven through Renegade, though he’s more interested in telling the story than judging the characters for their decisions. The title track, he says, is “about troubled cocky young men charming young women who were intrigued by that way of life, only for it to end in tragedy. I saw this countless times growing up.” Later he writes about his personal efforts to become a stronger person in “Born Again,” after a childhood of being bullied for his long hair and an adolescence marked by insecurity, fear, and anger.
LeBlanc considers the new album a departure from his past work, but only because there’s more of an edge to these sessions, recorded with Grammy-winning producer Dave Cobb in Nashville’s Studio A. This time around, LeBlanc primarily stayed plugged in for the sessions, giving Renegade a Tom Petty feel, charged with a streak of ‘80s rock. “I never really played electric guitar live in the studio like that,” he says. “I'm so used to the rhythmic, acoustic thing. It was just like playing in a show.”
Since 2016, LeBlanc has toured with Alabama rock group The Pollies as his backing band. He’s known most of the band members since childhood, growing up together in Muscle Shoals, and considers them his closest friends. Because they’ve been playing songs on Renegade live, it was only logical that the Pollies backed up LeBlanc in the studio, too.
“They bring out a comfort in me to let loose, let myself go a little bit more, and get more immersed in the music,” LeBlanc says. “It's such a telekinetic thing, because we've known each other for so long and we’ve played together a lot. It’s a band of guys that I know musically really well. They let me express myself creatively in a way that I probably wouldn't be comfortable enough to do before.”
These expressions are sometimes borne out of conversations with strangers, such as the woman in “Domino” who shared her stories of prostitution with him, or the man he met in New Orleans who inspired “Bang Bang Bang,” whose life was dramatically altered by gun violence. On a more personal note, “Damned” finds LeBlanc trying to wrap his head around religion, while “I See It in Your Eyes” and “Lone Rider” capture the complications of relationships. One of the album’s quieter moments, “Sand and Stone” is an effort to live in the present moment. As Renegade draws to a close, “Magenta” evokes the slave history of a farm in Louisiana, while “Honor Among Thieves” makes a powerful statement about ancestry, immigration laws, and land rights.
LeBlanc’s previous album, 2016’s Cautionary Tale, offered a satisfyingly mellow vibe in line with the ‘70s musicians who influenced him. However, once he started touring with the Pollies, the sonic textures began to shift. Yet, one of the strongest ties between the albums is LeBlanc’s blossoming confidence as a singer. The range and depth he showed as a vocalist on Cautionary Tale run throughout the 10 songs on Renegade.
“I think my voice is definitely something I had to find,” he says. “I didn't have the range that I have now. Somebody told me, ‘Your voice is like a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it gets.’ I really took that to heart. I always tried to go further than what I was capable of, and push harder for it, which is sometimes embarrassing, but sometimes it works out. Over time I could sing a lot higher, and had more range and more development. Also, playing shows helps your voice. You can't substitute experience.”
As a boy, LeBlanc lived in Austin, Texas, with his mother, stepfather, a brother and sister. When the kids would go visit their paternal grandmother in Shreveport, Louisiana, LeBlanc would constantly replay of a videotape of his dad playing guitar in a band called The Underground, strumming along with a toy guitar. Before long, music became an obsession. In his early teens, LeBlanc absorbed the ‘80s music his mother preferred, like The Police and U2. Meanwhile, his grandmother encouraged him to keep writing music and introduced him to important songwriters like John Prine and Merle Haggard. He’d spend hours in his bedroom learning guitar by playing along with CDs.
Because his father James LeBlanc was a staff writer at FAME Enterprises in Muscle Shoals, Dylan spent years hanging around the office, getting to know founder Rick Hall. In contrast to the city’s incredible soul and rock heritage, most of LeBlanc’s friends were listening to metal, though personally LeBlanc was drawn to albums by Bright Eyes, Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. At 16, he dropped out of high school to join a rock band. He’s maintained a music career ever since, and the release of Renegade means another global trek with the band, which he fully embraces.
“I really like to be goofy and joke with them a lot, but also to get deep with people and have real conversations, and talk about the things that matter,” says LeBlanc, who now lives in Nashville. “I don't read anything that doesn't help me grow as a person in some way. I don't read novels anymore. I don't read for entertainment. I just read to grow. I feel like I want to have a conversation with people who are looking to grow and move forward in their own spiritual way.”