INTERVIEW: Judah & the Lion circle the wagons and hit the road with weighty songs

Judah & the Lion, Judah and the Lion, Judah Akers, Nate Zuercher, Brian Macdonald

Judah & the Lion. Courtesy photo.

While Nashville rock band Judah & the Lion was experiencing its breakthrough success with 2017 album Folk Hop N’ Roll, frontman Judah Akers’ family was breaking apart at the seams. Until then, he had been able to keep a festering plague private from his bandmates—his mother’s alcoholism. But then the dam burst. His mother, at her lowest, was behind bars. She and Akers’ father, who at times was absent, were getting divorced after 26 years of marriage. Aker’s aunt, with whom he was close, passed away during the same time. And Judah & the Lion were on tour, keeping him away from his family.

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That story, as well as how Akers was nearly destroyed by his family’s rift and how bandmates Nate Zuercher and Brian Macdonald held him up when he most needed it, form the central arc of Pep Talks, Judah & the Lion’s third record.

“Even though we’re best friends and make music together, a lot of it has been wrestled with for a while without it being shared,” said Zuercher, the band’s banjo player, of being kept in the dark about Akers’ heavy heart. “Over the last couple years in particular, it’s definitely blown up, and it became too difficult to hide as more and more people have been affected by it.”

Pep Talks is Akers’ story. The album, which debuted at No. 18 on the Billboard 200 in May, was written and recorded over the past two years as he was in the midst of collapse.

It tackles weighty subjects like mental health, depression, loss of both life and familiarity, looking for help, and finding a way to remain hopeful. Following a chanted intro, the album begins in earnest with “Quarter-Life Crisis,” with its hearty plea; “This whole record may be a/ Quarter-life crisis/ I need my family to come and/ Help me fight this/ I can’t do this alone.” “Why Did You Run” recounts Akers’ mom calling him from jail. “ ‘I’m OK, But I’m locked in a holding cell/ ‘Til someone gets me out/ Can you help me I have no one else.’”

“I’m OK” faces Akers’ aunt’s death, his parents’ divorce, and him admitting to himself that he is not, in fact, all right: “It’s been a few years since I felt OK/ But I’m just like a pro not showing it on my face … I’m not OK/ Come get my pain.”

Then there’s “Pictures,” on which Kacey Musgraves sings lead. The song is about Akers’ mother moving out of his childhood home. Judah & the Lion wrote the song with her in mind and then the band’s management reached out to her counterpart in Nashville. It turned out that Musgraves was already a fan of the band.

“It’s a pretty relatable song regardless of what level of relationship that you’ve been through,” Zuercher said.

Working on the songs brought Zuercher and Macdonald closer to Akers

“I’m really grateful for this record and what it talks about even though it comes from a place of difficulty and struggle,” Zuercher said. “We know his family; we love them, and it’s been really hard to watch all that. I think for them and for us and everyone who’s closely knit into his community, it’s been a beautiful thing to watch the redemption and grace that’s come through all this and the hope that no matter how bad it gets, there’s always a reason to move forward, and we’re all going to be OK. We’re not alone. I’m really proud of him for being willing and able to share the story and not just kind of hole up and fester.”

Nate Zuercher on making a 17-song album:
It was a challenge but not in an ‘I don’t think we should do this’ way as much as we wanted to do as good as we possibly could with those. There was never a point of, ‘Do we have too many songs?’ We felt like we needed all of them on there. … A lot of people make records and they have a song bank of 50 to 100 songs that they have to dwindle down. For us it was pretty clear from the get-go that these were going to be the songs on the record. … We all believe in these. They fit the story.

And while the stories belong to Akers, his bandmates also related to the material. Macdonald has gotten married, which has been a huge life change, while Zuercher navigated a messy breakup—“my own version of hell.”

He personally connects to songs like “Over My Head” and “I’m OK.” He suspects that while the story may not be common, the experience of loss and disarray will be a commonality for many listeners.

“We were planning a life together and getting it ripped from underneath you; having to pick up the pieces from that and figure out how to move forward is a lot of what’s on the record,” he said.

Zuercher and Macdonald didn’t write any lyrics on Pep Talks, but they were more involved with the sonics and production than ever. Like on their previous records, the band again found a hybrid of roots rock, pop, dance and electronica. It’s a blend only Judah & the Lion has been able to both nail down and have commercial success with.

The band didn’t set out to change anything from their 2017 album, but the additional time the members got to work on the material allowed them to experiment more and nail down exactly what they were going for. Previously, they had just two weeks to record albums. This time around they had months.

Making Pep Talks also allowed Macdonald to flex his composition and arranging muscles, which his bandmates discovered he had while reworking “Take It All Back” for the expanded edition of their last album.

Besides Musgraves, Jon Bellion also makes an appearance on the record, and drummer Darren King of Mutemath tracked most of the percussion, taking the place of former member Spencer Cross.

“He was involved in all the pre-production,” Zuercher said of King. “He’s a creative brain; it was very cool to work with him.”

One new addition to the band’s sonic palette was punk, a genre all three members love and makes an appearance on the album’s two final tracks, “Sportz” and “17.” Both songs were written by friends of the band in Nashville, who had actually been performing them for a couple of years. The songs also carry lighthearted elements and play the role of a deep breath after the heaviness of the record.

“We’re gonna hit you hard here, but we’re not going to let you sit in that,” Zuercher said. “We’re going to try to make you smile as we go out.”

The two closing tracks are not the only breaths of fresh air. The latter half of the record carries more hope than gloom. The light at the end of the tunnel comes into full view on “Don’t Mess With My Mama,” a raucous line drawn in the sand. Akers has been through a lot, but he will never not support his mom. The video for the song stars the mothers of all three members, and even Akers’ grandma.

Then on “7000X,” Akers declares he’s not done fighting: “Here’s your choice stay low or get up and fight/ Look at us getting up,” and on “Alright (Frick It)” he pushes back further that “No matter bad this all gets/ I can’t stop the voice in my head/ This voice in my head says/ We gonna be all right.”

On “Joyboy,” Akers proclaims that he will choose joy in an imperfect world where no one gets out unscathed. And on “Family / Best Is Yet To Come” he realizes how he’s not alone. The song is preceded by an emotional voice message from his mom, who had just heard what would become the album, giving her blessing to share his family story.

“He’s still very close with [his parents] and always has been,” Zuercher said. “They’re trying to work through the reality of what’s going on while still loving each other as good as they can through it.”

Akers, Zuercher and Macdonald are also closer than ever, having matured over the last couple of years, and have learned to count on each other. And while playing the personal songs is going to be another challenge to overcome, they have each other to lean on.

They now frequently check in to make sure one another is all right or needing to talk.

“It’s a little bit like, ‘Hey Judah, are you OK, man? Are you all right singing this every night? How’s that making you feel?’” Zuercher said. “A lot of that resonates with my own story; with me having to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I’m really struggling with this right now. … I need you to know as my brother that you can check in on me.’”

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