Interview: Luke LeBlanc talks John Prine cassettes, new music and a guitar lesson from Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Luke LeBlanc played at First Lutheran Church on night one of the 2020 Big Turn Music Fest.

It was on drives from North Minneapolis to a family cabin that musician Luke LeBlanc formed some of his first memories with music. Today, LeBlanc is a multi-instrumentalist who has opened for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Ozark Mountain Daredevils, The Rembrandts and shares a songwriting credit with Roy August (co-writer of Oak Ridge Boys’ “Fancy Free”) for his 2019 single “Same Blues.”

“Driving up to the cabin with my dad we’d always have John Prine on tape cassette or like Oldies or like, you know, Bob Dylan and The Band. Stuff like that. We even had this one Jimmy Buffett tape at one point called ‘A White Sport Coat and A Pink Crustacean’,” LeBlanc said.

Those drives to the cabin made an impression on LeBlanc. “when you are 4-years-old in the car your mind is very impressionable to everything, but especially music. But, you know, reviews I’ve had on certain songs or albums there is always a thing about a turn of phrase or a way I finger picked or something that gets related to like that genre. So, yeah, I think it definitely has a way of bleeding through,” he said.

At 12-years-old LeBlanc began learning guitar. “I got to the point where it bugged me that I couldn’t play music myself. So I just started learning and figuring it out,” he said. It wasn’t long after LeBlanc picked up the guitar, that he began writing his own songs.

“I just started with the G chord and then moved on to the other ones, and right away I wanted to kinda write my own stuff. I just felt this natural pull towards it,” he said. LeBlanc later added banjo, piano and harmonica to his repertoire.

As an americana/folk artist, LeBlanc is in good company in Minneapolis. Minnesota artists like Charlie Parr, Trampled by Turtles, Frankie Lee and Erik Koskinen contribute to a robust scene. The latter is the producer of the album LeBlanc is currently recording at Koskinen’s studio in Cleveland, Minnesota.

The album has been a work in progress since November of last year, as scheduling conflicts and sickness have hampered its completion. LeBlanc said producing the album with Koskinen made him grow as an artist and incorporate components he hadn’t before.

“It’s hard as an artist, any kind of artist or doing anything actually, to take something that you wrote or created and bring it to a place and sit back and let other people take some of that creative control. You know, it’s like your songs and you get a majority of say in a way, but to be able to just let people try interesting different ideas on your songs- a different kind of snare drum or a different instrument or a different way of playing,” LeBlanc said.

He added that it can be a vulnerable position, but ultimately makes the album better. “It is a challenge to sit back and let that happen, but then at the end of the day, after a grueling day of just letting your mind step back and let this cool stuff happen to your songs, it’s rewarding and you learn a lot and then it really opens up the songs to something new,” he said.

LeBlanc is excited to release the album this summer, and while he wants people to enjoy his hard work, he realizes there is a possibility it will not be well received- a fact, he tries not to worry about it too much.

“We all got an average of 70 some years on Earth or whatever, and there is a next time and you can adjust or not adjust. So, it is something I think about but I try not to get too caught up in it,” he said.

Laura Ellen Brandjord (LEB): You said you had played at NDSU for Live at Lunch?

Luke LeBlanc (LL): Yeah, this was in September, I think. They make really nice posters (for the show). I’ve played at a couple colleges now and their posters are super cool.

LEB: Did you get to take one of them with you?

LL: Uh, I didn’t steal one of those (laughs) ‘cause they made a really big one and it’s hard to just take, you know, roll it up. I have taken other ones, but I haven’t taken that one. (laughs)

LEB: What is your writing process like? Does a melody come to mind first, lyrics or something else?

LL: Yeah, I think musicians get that question a lot and for me, it’s never really a black and white answer, where it’s like, you know, ‘First, I draw an outline (laughs), and then I…’ It’s more like they both come.

You know, I could just be having a lazy Sunday hanging out with my cat, Houdini is her name, and I could just pick up the guitar because I’m bored and I don’t wanna go on Instagram or Facebook like I usually do. It’s a terrible habit we got that’s just our default now.

So I’ll pick up the guitar and just mess with it not with any intention, but then I’ll hear something and be like, ‘Oh, that’s interesting’ and I’ll run with it. When that kinda happens where I hit something that just sparks up, I spend 10-15 minutes to write it out.

I find it hard to…it’s hard to just say, you know, ‘Tonight at four, I’m going to put it on the calendar to sit down and write a song.’ I don’t know (laughs), that rarely works for me. 

I just do random stuff and then I pick up the guitar and something happens. I mean, some of them are really crappy and I’ve got a collection of those in my voice memos, but some work out and we put them on the album.

One thing I’ve learned is not to let things…make a plan, but if the plan doesn’t always work, take a step back and let things happen. I can be a very, what do you call it, Type A, where I plan everything out like ‘what time is it now? We should be three quarters done by now.” but when you take a step back interesting things happen sometimes.

LEB: Do you have any ways you shake off writer’s block or do you just revisit it another day?

LL: I think it’s usually the latter. It’s just, ‘Hey, it’s not gonna happen today.’ It’s kind of like the weather, you know. It’s like you’re going to have a baseball game but a storm comes in and it’s like, ‘Well…maybe it will be sunny tomorrow.’

LEB: I like to end my interviews on some fun questions that aren’t related to your music or album.

LL: I like it.

LEB: So, the first is the desert island record. You are stuck on a desert island alone with only one album for the rest of your days. What album would it be?

LL: Oh, God. That’s a tough question. You know, my answer is subject to change, unless I get stuck on an island and when they decide which record to send me with it will be the one I say right now (laughs). I think, Kacey Musgraves…what’s the one? The one with the rainbow on it? Golden Hour?

Yeah. I think it’s one of those albums that’s going to be around forever. What I love about her music is it’s not limited by any genre, like pop radio plays her, country radio plays her, people who say they’re only into not mainstream music will also listen to her. It just cuts across genres and the whole album hits you in the feelings.

LEB: If you were to choose three headliners (living or dead) for a festival you’d like to attend, who would it be?

LL: Ok. The Band…the band called The Band…I don’t know if you are familiar with them.

LEB: Yeah, I know them.

LL: Ok. Some people are like, ‘Ok, but like, what band?’ (laughs)

So…Chance the Rapper. I don’t know, he’s just such an entertainer. I did some stagehand work in college and I got to work one of his shows. I don’t know, some concerts the music is good, some concerts, like, the performance is good but with him it’s everything. I mean all the arrangements…Wow.

And then three? Um, I feel like you need someone at a festival that just does really long bluesy solos, so maybe John Mayer.

LEB: You’ve opened up for a lot of great bands, but who was your favorite?

LL: you know, I’d have to say The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I opened for them a couple of times. It was like twice in Minnesota, and once…I remember it being called The Venue in Fargo. I don’t know if it’s still called The Venue or if it’s still there. This was like in 2012-2013, around there.

I got to open for them there. My dressing room was this old closet thing because I was 14 and even though I could play there, I wasn’t 21 so I couldn’t walk around the venue after I played. So I was backstage except for when I was playing. 

One of the members of the band, a former member now, John McEuen, he’s a multi-instrumentalist, I mean banjo, mandolin, guitar. He’s played with everybody in country music: Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks, a bunch of other people. 

Anyways, he came back and he said, ‘You ever learn fingerpicking?’ I knew a little, but he was like ‘I’ll give you a lesson’ and he spent like two hours with me back there. He taught me just all these different kinds of fingerpicking. 

I didn’t really have guitar lessons when I learned guitar, but he’s like my one guitar lesson. I mean just the fact that I got to open for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and I love their music, but also that he spent two hours to sit there and work with me.

And I think that on my records, I think on ‘Same Blues’ especially, some of the fingerpicking I learned that night comes through. I think when somebody gives you their time, that sticks with you a long time.

LEB: What band would you love to open for that you haven’t yet?

LL: You ask really challenging questions, that’s great. That’s good (laughs). There’s so many, but I think that Jason Isbell would be. You know, I think…everybody thinks…the songs he’s writing and has been writing are just like, ‘Wow.’

Ray Lamontagne I’m a really big fan of. Mumford & Sons. Marcus Mumford like..I mean the whole group. So that’s a few.

LEB: Anything else?

LL: Yeah, I guess, I’ll have new music out soon. I have music up on Spotify now that you can listen to. I don’t want to be the plug my Instagram person, but I like connecting with people on Instagram and stuff. It’s @lukeleblancmusic. If I have a song I’m working on, I might throw it up there. 

What I think is really cool about Instagram is that you can randomly follow people that you don’t necessarily know and follow their work and then when you meet them in person, it’s almost like you’re meeting a celebrity, you know. Like ‘Oh my gosh, you’re candybar_52. What the hey.’ (laughs).

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