AltPop Band Judah & the Lion to Headline Free Pre-Fireworks Concert at Sawyer Point

Supporting their most recent album, 'Pep Talks,' the "Folk Hop N Roll" group comes to Cincinnati this Sunday to play a free show with locals PUBLIC and Stephen Puth (Charlie's bro)

click to enlarge Judah & the Lion -
Judah & the Lion

If the broadened access to music in the digital age is leading to a lessening importance in genre classifications, Judah & The Lion might just be the poster children for the streaming generation. The band has found a wide audience with their blurred stylistic lines, mixing Hip Hop beats, Electronic sounds and Americana instrumentation like the banjo into their poppy AltRock foundation for a style they accurately dubbed “Folk Hop N Roll.” That’s also the title of J&TL’s 2016 sophomore album, which spawned their breakthrough single, the Gold-certified “Take It All Back.”

After that hit, things were going well for the band, which was playing in front of increasingly larger audiences. But behind the scenes, things weren’t going so well for frontman Judah Akers.

“His parents got divorced about two years ago as we were on the road,” explains banjo player Nate Zuercher in a recent phone interview from his Nashville home. “Things were going up and up and up for the band. He had a lot to deal with back home. It was very confusing. It’s this inner struggle about not knowing how to feel about anything and things not going the way they should overall.”

Akers had written a number of songs about his personal struggles but thought maybe they were just for him and not for the band. After all, he constantly writes, and the band doesn’t necessarily record every song he pens. But he showed the songs to Zuercher and mandolin player Brian Macdonald, and the two thought they’d make good Judah & the Lion tunes.

“We were proud of him and encouraged him and told him he wasn’t alone in anything he was going through,” says Zuercher. “It’s been really tough to figure out how to still be there for his family. They’re just people, too, who are trying to do their best and we often idolize our parents even though they’re not perfect. That, of course, doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of love. We felt like he shouldn’t have kept (his feelings) to himself. There are also mental health things he was dealing with. It’s his story and we know the people involved so it was easy for (singer/mandolin player) Brian (Macdonald ) and I to relate to it. He was willing to put them out, and I’m thankful and proud he did that.”

Producers Drew Long and Daniel James holed up with the band at Sound Emporium Studios in Nashville and cut the tracks that became Pep Talks, their latest album which came out earlier this year. Despite the somber nature of the lyrics, the album might be the band’s most uptempo effort to date. It begins with the exuberant chants of “Pep Talk,” which, with its horn section, sounds a bit like Fleetwood Mac’s “Tusk.” Other highlights include the twangy “Why Did You Run?,” which is one of the first songs Akers wrote for the disc.

“Judah submitted the demo (for 'Why Did You Run?'),” says Zuercher. “I was in Colorado driving back to Nashville, and I remember getting it and listening to it was driving back. I knew it would be a big song. We hadn’t talked about the whole record. We tried working on it about a year before we did the rest of the album. It just didn’t work yet. We couldn’t get it quite how we wanted. When we did the rest of the record, we brought it back up and re-spun it. More than any other song on the record, that one had the most edits, and a lot of that was that we felt like it was a very important song, and we needed to get it right. It didn’t land until much later on. Judah wrote that in the thick of everything that was going with his family as opposed to the other ones.”

“Don’t Mess with My Mama” features some heavy-duty electronic instrumentation. Zuercher says the group had to dial back the initial recording because it featured a messy amalgam of sounds.

“With the whole record, there are tons of influences and styles going on,” he says. “When we were writing each song, we wanted to follow it no matter what direction it went in. With (“Mama”), it was apparent that it needed to be as much of a banger as we could make (it). For that song, we went separately into the different rooms in the studio and put all our ideas down. We slapped it all together and it was way too much so we then picked it apart and kept the stuff that was really cool. It was a fun way to build it and different than what we normally do. We wanted to make it as clean as possible.

“The banjo part is one of the weirdest parts I’ve ever made. I was trying to create a sweeping synth sound. It was a fun process and much different than anything we’ve ever done.”

Ultimately, the songs on this new album should translate well live even if they’re sometimes centered on somber things like divorce and mental health.

“We love to keep the energy going (in the live show),” Zuercher says. “A lot of the songs are really heavy, but we want to keep things positive and we want to be real and honest but not discouraging. We thought that there’s got to be a way to find a balance. We put so much thought and energy into the show. We played 13 shows in Europe without any production. It was cool to see that even when you take the production away, it still translates. It will be a rowdy hour-and-a-half. We’re pumped to pull out all the stops. We thought about the live show the entire time we made the record.”

Judah & the Lion will headline KISS 107.1 FM’s “Just Show Up Show” at Sawyer Point Park ahead of Sunday’s fireworks extravaganza on the river. Cincinnati AltPop trio PUBLIC, which recently signed to Island Records, and Stephen Puth (Charlie Puth's brother) will also appear at the free, 5 p.m. concert.

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