Posted August 20, 2019 by Jeff in Tunes

Judah & The Lion Choose to Remain Positive

Judah and the Lion
Judah and the Lion

Indie rockers Judah & The Lion just released new album Pep Talks earlier this summer and the album landed at the No. 2 spot on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart. The highly personal songs reference the changes that took place in singer-guitarist Judah Akers’ life while the band’s success was skyrocketing. It features cameos from Grammy winner Kacey Musgraves and past tour mate Jon Bellion. In a recent phone interview, singer-banjo player Nate Zuercher spoke about the new album.

The songs on Pep Talks are particularly personal. Talk about some of the things that were happening in Judah’s life that influenced them.

His parents got divorced about two years ago while we were on the road. Things were going up and up and up for the band but 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. As we were on tour and writing songs, it became apparent that he needed to share his inner struggle. He was trying to open up to us. He had written a lot of songs. He thought maybe they were just for him. He writes songs all the time and it doesn’t matter whether they get released or not. It’s just his way of processing things. He came to us and presented his vision feeling like he needed to put these out. We were proud of him and encouraged him and told him he wasn’t alone in anything he was going through. It’s been really tough to figure out how to still be there for his family. They’re just people who are trying to do their best. 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 them 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.

Who produced the album?

Drew Long, Daniel James and the three of us. It was a team effort.

Did you record in Nashville?

Yeah, at Sound Emporium Studios, just south of Belmont.

I read a bit about “Why Did You Run?” What’s the story of how that song came to fruition?

Judah had written a few of the songs earlier on. He had written “Over My Head,” “Why Did You Run?” and “Pep Talks.” We were working on those about a year before the rest of them. Judah submitted the demo. 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 had that conversation yet about the whole record. There were a lot of things up in the air. We didn’t know what it would turn into. 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.

“Don’t Mess with My Mama” features some electronic instrumentation. Talk about what you wanted that song to sound like?

With the whole record, there are tons of influences and styles going on. When we were writing each song, we wanted to follow it no matter what direction it went in. With that one 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.

Talk about your musical background. What made you want to learn to play the banjo?

I started on guitar when I was in middle school. I came to Nashville to study guitar at Belmont. When I graduated high school, my friend gave me a banjo because he knew I played string instruments and was going to Nashville and thought it would be fun. I got here and realized no one was playing banjo. I wasn’t very good at it. But I worked more and more on it knowing there was an opportunity. About a year later, I switched to banjo and met Brian who had done the same thing with mandolin. Judah heard about us and invited us to play and it took off from there. It was, “I don’t know what I’m doing but no one else is doing it and I’ll try my best.” I still have that approach.

Your first EP, Sweet Tennessee, actually charted. What was the key to getting people give it a shot?

We got really lucky with our school community. Belmont isn’t just a music school but it’s what they’re known for. They don’t have a football team, so they make music showcases their events. Our first show we ever played was in front of 3,000 people in Nashville. It was sick. That got us in front of people who could make things happen quickly. We got in front of the right people initially. We still had to grind it out. We released our EP that night. We got our manager from Belmont and our tour manager and a couple of people on our crew. We’re very grateful for that.

How’d you wind up working with Dave Cobb, who produced Kids These Days and Folk Hop N’ Roll?

Our manager’s uncle is good friends with Dave. Dave actually mixed Sweet Tennessee and we liked working with him. It just ended up working out. He was a trip to work with. He’s amazing and a really good guy. It was a treat. It’s one of those things I don’t really believe happened.

The songs on this new album seem like fun ones to play live. Is that the case?

We love to keep the energy going. 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. We thought about the live show the entire time we made the record. We’re very excited and thankful for this opportunity.  


Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at [email protected].