To gauge Shane Leonard’s talent and dedication to his craft, you might look at the numerous and varied albums he has either played the lead role on or assisted in the performing or production process.
The Eau Claire resident’s website lists 43 such projects, along with the note: “This selection is not all-inclusive.”
More evidence of Leonard’s versatility can be found on “Strange Forms,” his latest record. The project features all original compositions for which Leonard sang, arranged, played all the instruments and co-produced with his friend and studio collaborator Brian Joseph.
But the well-crafted lyrics, engaging vocals and the high-level instrumental chops are what stand out most prominently rather than simply the sum of his roles.
As he talked about his music recently at an Eau Claire coffee shop, Leonard said the record came about not so much to showcase all his abilities in one package but simply from his desire to make music.
“I think it just came out of the impulse to write songs,” he said. “We all have things we enjoy doing. For me one of those impulses is writing.”
This new batch, he continued, represents a departure from a solo project with the moniker Kalispell.
“That was more sort of like avant-garde folk or chamber folk,” he said. On “Strange Forms,” by contrast, “It felt like I was coming from a more earnest place and just channeling maybe a purer expression of the music that I loved growing up.”
Those early influences include The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Paul Simon, Carly Simon, Neil Young, artists he refers to as “the classics.”
“Strange Forms” has been met with critical praise from outlets such as the website B-sides and Badlands, which calls the title song a “psychedelic charmer … which sees the folk-rock performer transmit his energy right into the cosmos without batting an eye.”
Chillfiltr, another online publication, opined: “With a soft-spoken vocal suspended halfway between the styles of Ben Gibbard and Paul Simon, Shane Leonard strikes a philosophical tone, leveraging an effortless lyricism that blends a personal narrative with the universal force of informed hindsight.”
And this comment from another musician with Eau Claire ties, Justin Vernon, appears on Leonard’s website: “A monster musician who’s played with everyone has made his own best work.”
Leonard’s website includes a statement that speaks to what helped spark the creativity for this project: “Borne out of an intense two-year period in which Leonard lost his father and then became a father and husband himself, ‘Strange Forms’ delivers candid ruminations on the themes of rebirth and vulnerability.”
The title itself comes from the life-changing personal events that preceded the album’s creation.
“It’s like becoming and encountering strange forms,” he said of those experiences. “Like, who am I now, who are we now, what happens to people when they die. That’s definitely what the record is about. It’s navigating change. And mostly writing from personal experience, although I’m having fun starting to write in character, trying to put on someone else’s jacket and shoes and walk around and try to think about how they see the world.”
The songs certainly would suggest the flair for language that led him to become a high school English teacher after leaving his college music program, a step he took after, he explained, “I realized I didn’t need a diploma that said ‘musician.’”
In particular, his metaphors stand out, as in “Midway,” where he compares love to rides on a roller coaster and a Ferris wheel. Other notable examples are in “Maybe Our Love is Like a Popular Song” (“We topped the charts for a time/but the trend is moving on”) and “Empire Builder” (“It’s a free ride but you gotta pick the right train/the wrong line could be a round trip/you can’t afford to take”).
Leonard’s ability to play multiple instruments assisted in the recording process. He wrote most of the 12 compositions on guitar, although for some he started on piano. Before he got to the studio he did demo versions on a cassette four-track recorder, trying out different guitar, drum, keyboard and bass parts.
“Most of them went through a few iterations,” he said. “They kind of got squeezed and stretched and (received) the taffy treatment.”
Overall, he decided sparsity suited the music.
“I did try to cut the fat and be a little more minimalist in the recordings than the Kalispell records have been — allow for a little more space because I just like space in music,” he said. “I feel like when you leave space, it’s sort of being generous with the listener because you’re carving out somewhere for them to find a place to live in the songs.”
Working with ‘a master’
Working with Joseph also benefited the project. Owner of Hive studio in Eau Claire, Joseph’s impressive credits include engineering, producing and/or mixing for such albums as “Bon Iver, Bon Iver,” Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell,” Local Natives' "Sunlit Youth," Blind Boys of Alabama’s “I’ll Find a Way” and S. Carey’s “Range of Light” and “All We Grow.”
“Brian’s a master,” Leonard said. “He’s that rare combination of somebody who makes bold choices but is also humble.”
Leonard elaborated on the working process the two have forged.
“The way our relationship works is that there are some times Brian would say, ‘I don’t know if you need that part or that’s a little too … what if we tried it like this?’ And then I’d try it and then we’d decide together if that was better or not,” he said. “... It was pretty much like a yin and yang kind of thing with us both making up every part. I feel so lucky. I like working by myself; that’s fun. But it always ends up better when Brian and I work together.”
The Joseph-Leonard production team has worked with national artists such as Anna Tivel, whose latest album, “The Question,” got a shout-out from NPR Music, as well as Kristin Andreassen (Uncle Earl), Sean Rowe and others.
When he’s not in the studio or playing his own music, Leonard has performed in the touring bands of such artists as Mipso, Field Report, Rose Cousins, The Stray Birds and Oh Pep! The different roles have worked interactively on his projects.
“They definitely exert push and pull on each other,” he said. “For instance I think having started as a musician, like a drummer first and then a songwriter, has allowed me to have more empathy in the production process as a producer. When I’m talking to a songwriter there are some things I know not to say or some things I know to say because I understand what they’re feeling, I’d like to think. Sometimes I don’t,” he said with a mild laugh, “but most of the time, hopefully.”
Similarly, development of his diverse skills has helped him grow as a musician.
“The work as a producer working other songwriters has I think given me perspective in my own writing to understand a song does come from a very personal place,” he said. “But once it’s out there, once it’s being shared with people or just played, it’s not as much about that anymore. A song should have some generosity to the listener.”
The production work has allowed Leonard to stay close to home, which he’s happy about because it allows him to spend more time with his wife and two children.
“I wouldn’t mind being on the road for my music, but fortunately I don’t have to do that,” he said. “It’s not really my bread and butter. And that’s great because it’s a challenge, the work-family balance. But, fortunately, they’re totally supportive.”
The next project
Next month he’s going to start recording the follow-up to “Strange Forms,” but he’ll take a different approach. Instead of playing all the instruments, he’ll use a group of musicians he has bonded with: guitarist-singer Courtney Hartman; bassist Jeremy Boettcher; and pedal steel-keyboard player Ben Lester. Leonard will play guitar and drums and sing.
To start with, he’ll go into the studio with Joseph and record the songs, with him singing and playing guitar. After that he’ll send the recordings to the band members, and in October they will all meet at the studio. “Then I’m going to pretend that I’m not the songwriter, I’m just the drummer and we’re the band that’s been hired to back up this songwriter so that we’ll get into the room and we’ll play along to the recording and my singing,” he said. “I think it’ll be fun; I’ve never done that before.”
As part of his extensive musical activities, he performs frequently at The Lakely in downtown Eau Claire. Those dates include solo work during brunches on weekends at the restaurant, where he may play traditional folk songs on banjo and fiddle or improvised electric guitar for the entire three-hour set. During evening jazz sets, he often plays in a trio including Boettcher and pianist Josh Gallagher.
These settings are “totally different” from his concerts supporting his albums such as “Strange Forms,” he said.
In sum, Leonard has plenty to keep him busy, which may be why he puts his energy into doing his best work rather than keeping track of his number of credits. Told the list on his website adds up to 43, he replied, “Oh wow! That’s awesome. I’ve never counted.”