By B. Simm
CALGARY — Turning points are often the result of a personal or professional crisis: some kind of road block, dead end, downward spiral, hitting-the-wall drama or tragedy. And when the realization comes that that point has been reached, most artists either pick up the pieces and turn their art into something else, or they choose to simply stop turning it out.
Now in his early 30s, Leeroy Stagger has been on the road for a solid decade. Within those 10 years he’s released just as many records; pumping them out, taking them on tour, grinding it out. Even if he was on the A-list stadium circuit with the luxury and commanding comfort of a well-appointed support crew, the workload would be exhausting. At the boutique level, it can be a slow burn on the road to burning out.
In the confessional “Ten Long Years,” Stagger draws from his tour diary…
It took ten long years to show this bruise
To lay my burden down
I’d take to the stage and a thousand beds
As I traveled from town to town
I’d fill my soul with women and wine
‘Til the morning came unglued
But I found my way out of the dark
From pain and attitude
It’s weird how the good thing that we sometimes pursue relentlessly because we want it so bad, can also be so bad for the soul. Ah, the irony of loving it to death and killing ourselves in the process. Stagger couldn’t have painted a more complete of picture of “living the dream.”
Dream It All Away, his 10th album, is laced throughout with reflective details voicing strong, sober sentiments and a deeper insight that experience brings. Stagger fully admits that there’s an acute sensitivity on display that he’s relieved to get to the core of, especially in the emotional upheaval of “Feel It All.” From his haven in Lethbridge, Stagger draws a breath and pores over what’s written between the lines.
“I realized I was suffering from depression, and had been most of my adult life. It really came to a head when my son was born. And a song like ‘Feel It All’ was more of an impasse than I thought. I was feeling all these emotions, almost to a hypersensitivity, and it was messing me up. I didn’t realize any of that, I just thought it was a normal way of being. But when my son was born and all these things from my childhood came out, I just realized I had to deal with it. The record is a documentation of that and going through it all to some degree.”
While Dream It All Away certainly has its melancholic moments, the record itself is anything but dark and depressing. In fact, its sonic qualities are full of robust, organic melody with stands of REM, Big Star, The Byrds and Beatles that come streaming out in “Happy Too.”
Stagger welcomes the comparisons noting, “Yeah, I was shooting for all those things really. But there’s a weirdness because it’s not really a happy song. I wanted the brightness to shine through in the music, but I didn’t want the weight of the lyrics to fall through in the music either.”
The tension between happy and sad, depression and rejoicing, darkness and deliverance is what Stagger crafts so well on the record: a duality, the coexistence between opposing emotional forces which is the fabric both he and his music is made of.
“Living In America” has a Springsteen vibe to it in that it confronts the complications and contradictions of a country ravaged by the One Percent inequality. But unlike America’s best-loved storyteller of desolate souls, Stagger’s tale isn’t about one particular character, rather it’s a collection of “observations” gathered from the have and have-not world he experienced during a trip to Chicago.
“I was there for five days playing shows with Steve Earle. Living in Canada, especially Lethbridge, we’re kind of sheltered between the reality of the divide between poor people and the middle class, which is really non-existent. It’s just the poor and upper class. These were observations of people that I saw on a daily basis. Like the [homeless] woman, the girl living at the airport [featured in the song]. I saw her there when I landed, and when I left she was there asking for change from people at the Starbucks. It just tripped me out that that’s the existence, the reality for a lot of people living in big cities. It was weird, something that I’m not used to and the song just kind of came to me on the airplane ride home back.”
In addition to the variations of emotions and stories that spur on Stagger’s new material, his music is equally diverse with its own spectrum of emotive elements ranging from raw and ragged guitars to soaring slide and weeping steel-pedal guitars to a warm, sparkling six-string acoustic then back to a fuzzed-out electric and distorted vocals running too hot through the microphone.
“I have so many different tastes in music,” says Stagger. “And this is my 10th record, so if I’m going to make records at this point I want them to be real. I don’t want to hide anything and I don’t want to bullshit anybody, least of all myself. Not everybody is going to like what I do, but I wanted to give a record to anyone that came to my shows. I have a diverse fan base, and wanted to make something they could relate to.”
One track, almost anyone can relate to, fans of Leeroy or not, is the two-and-a-half minute Dylanesque romp called “New Music Biz Blues.” Reminiscent of Bob’s great put-down tunes and in the freewheelin’ spirit of “Highway 61 Revisited” and “Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat,” Stagger takes a stab at the convoluted state of the music business where up and coming artists often have to pay to play to stay in the game. “Yeah,” says Stagger of his gig days in Vancouver and along the West Coast, “that was my early 20s and late teens in a nutshell.”
And then there’s the reference about trying to break into Toronto’s tight knit music community…
Took a plane across the shield to do the city strut
The songs were pretty good but nobody got paid much
Just watch the Queen Street cowboy
Man he really makes the scene
Drag that comb across your hair
Make sure to keep those trousers clean
While Stagger won’t reveal who the Queen Street cowboy is, if anybody at all, he’s open about his reluctance towards the “music biz” that percolates out of Toronto.
“Oooooh man,” says Stagger with a mixed sense of apprehensiveness and frustration. “Without getting into too much trouble, being an artist in Western Canada has its own set of struggles opposed to somewhere like Toronto. We all saw what happened when Paul Lawton exposed the whole FACTOR scam.”
Lawton, musician/blogger/academic, ruffled the industry’s feathers when he claimed FACTOR’s funding goes primarily to certain recipients based in Toronto instead of being distributed more equitably across the country. Stagger says the Queen Street verse “more or less just falls in line with some of that sentiment, nothing in particular.”
Rounding out Dream It All Away is “Angry Young Man,” which Stagger has released himself from the grips of. By his own admission, he’s not angry at all. He says it’s a “searching song” written for his son but it also unfolds revealing where his journey has taken him so far…
His innocence surrounds me
As I look around to see
Slowly I’m becoming
The man I’d hoped I’d be
“It’s a song,” explains Stagger, “about finding love, unconditionally. Within myself too.”
In September Stagger released a limited edition of 100 copies of Dream It All Away pressed on red vinyl. Fifteen dollars from each copy purchased Stagger is donating towards Youth One, an outreach program in Lethbridge dedicated to providing a safe, positive environment for youths at risk.
Leeroy Stagger plays Oct. 9 at the Nite Owl, Oct. 16 at the #1 Legion, Oct. 17 at the Nite Owl and Oct. 24 at the Empress Theatre in Fort Macleod.#1 Royal Canadian Legion, AB, Alberta, Empress Theatre, Fort Macleod, Leeroy Stagger, Nite Owl