Lethbridge musician deservedly finds success two decades in and aims to take advantage of it with his exceptional new studio album Love Versus.
Life is full of second chances.
Music rarely is.
Well, the music business anyway. Sure, there are reclamation projects along the way, people finding their way out of the woods later in life, but it’s not an industry where brass rings are offered around every circle of the carousel, where an artist decades in gets a second shot that may well be better than the first.
Perhaps that’s why Lethbridge roots musician Leeroy Stagger is in such a remarkable mood at this moment in time.
He has been offered another opportunity to make his dreams come true and he’s not about to waste it.
Nor will he refrain from revelling in it.
“It’s amazing,” says Stagger from his home and recording studio two hours south of this city. “My career is finally taking off, which is good.”
That last sentence is thick with understatement.
For anyone who’s followed Stagger, championed his always sharp songwriting chops over 10 albums and 10 more years, “good” doesn’t come close to the kind of satisfaction that his current success elicits.
As for the taking off part of things — and how.
The singer-songwriter is basking in recent few years that saw him, among other things, win the Peak Performance Project top prize of almost $101,000, sign a management deal, ink a recording contract with True North records, open his studio, get a show on CKUA radio and, finally, early in April, release his finest work to date, Love Versus.
So, yes, you’ll forgive him for taking a victory lap two decades into an already stellar career.
Actually, perhaps it’s the fact that it’s happening now adds a little more satisfaction, with Stagger admitting when he was starting out and creating a buzz, he “wasn’t ready for it at the time.”
“I always thought that you only got one shot in this business so I was resigned to the fact that I was going to start looking to do other things. And then I’ve been given a second chance and I’m ready now,” he says.
“That’s the difference between when I was young and naive and dumb before and an OK songwriter, but, I don’t know, something’s changed in the last few years that I think I just feel more ready than ever and I actually feel like I have something worthwhile to say in my music.
“I’m really grateful that I’ve been given a second chance.”
Artistically, he thinks Love Versus is the perfect album to kick off his second act. And it’s hard not to agree.
It’s all of the good stuff about Stagger distilled into 10 tracks, from the ragged glory of his rustic guitar tunes, to the insight he lays down in a way that makes the personal universal and even how at ease he seems in his own skin, in his own voice.
Timing, again, is everything and Stagger admits he was ready to deliver this record, deliver a shot that mattered.
“I feel like this is the first record where I actually have my own voice,” he says. “Not to discredit any of my other records, because there are a lot of great songs and me in there, but this is literally the first record where we didn’t reference anything else and I’m not trying to be my heroes. It wasn’t even a cognizant thing to even do, it’s just that’s where I’m at and I feel like it’s the start of something really, really fantastic for me. As an artist, not even just a business thing or a career thing, but simply from the aspect of making art. It’s just really freeing.”
He actually credits one of those aforementioned heroes, Americana icon Steve Earle, with whom he toured and befriended, and is often compared.
Stagger recalls a conversation with the alt-country outlaw, and coming to the “(realization) I don’t need to be him.”
“I was sitting with Steve and we were talking about kids and he said to me, ‘I’m the wrong person to be talking to about this stuff because I fucked all that up.’ And I realized right then and there that I can learn from his mistakes and he’s not a god to me, he’s just a regular person and going through his own journey. I realized I’m free to forge my own path and make my own art and find my own art.
“And as soon as I let that all go, that’s when the songs, the really good stuff started to come, and I was really comfortable with my own voice.
“And people are coming to the party now.”
That included the musicians and minds who helped him bring to life Love Versus in that aforementioned home studio, including co-producer Colin Stewart — who Stagger says “really put me to task” rejecting songs, making him rewrite others — and legendary drummer Pete Thomas, known for his work as a member of Elvis Costello’s backing band The Attractions and for his time in power-poppers Squeeze.
Stagger had been told that the now L.A.-based session musician was something of an unattainable dream himself, but when the Alberta artist made the offer, Thomas did some digging into the requester and was suitably impressed enough to accept the invite to that party.
“And he flew to Lethbridge, Alberta. And slept in my house — I gave him the master bedroom. And we ate dinner together and we had breakfast together, he’d show up with pastries every morning,” he says.
“And, again, it was another one of those moments where I realized, like, ‘Shit, I’m OK, I’m alright being myself.’ ”
He continues. “When Pete Thomas takes you aside and says, ‘I haven’t made a fucking record like this since the ’70s,’ your ears perk up and you go, ‘Shit. OK. Alright. I’m doing something alright here,’ you know?”
Perhaps it’s because of that comfort level that the songwriter was willing to go all in when it came to the content of the songs he was singing on Love Versus, the themes he was tackling.
While his last release, 2015’s exceptional Dream It All Away, was more of an album dealing with his struggles and issues, including depression and a dependency on alcohol, “about me laying my cards on the table,” this one finds him on the other side of that cathartic experience, “this is about me healing from those things”
And, yes, Stagger’s 11th is a soul-affirming, blood-letting of tuneful prose and emotion, a joyful yawp celebrating life, celebrating his life, celebrating the shit and piss and heartbreak and hatred and laughter and all matters of miracles that make it worth living, make it worth singing about.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to say until the record was done,” he admits. “And I realized what it was, and it was that I needed to heal, I needed to find a way to heal myself from my past and the things that I was going through.
“I needed to do it in my music because, a.) it’s my livelihood, and b.) aside from my kids, it’s the biggest part of my life. I needed to find a way to make things make sense, what was going on in the world and what’s still going on in the world. But I also needed to show myself that there’s a lot of joy in the world.
“It sounds like fucking hippie shit, but I needed to find joy in my life, I needed to see the beauty in the banality of day to day life and I also needed to go and look for it.
“And that’s kind of what this record is about, it’s about finding out that love is enough to heal the world and to get us through this shit.”
He still says there’s a certain amount of “healthy cynicism” in the songs on the record, but he says there’s enough celebratory tone in the music to, once more, bring people to the festivities.
Perhaps that’s why album-opener, the ebullient I Want It All, opens with the line: “It’s a joyful life, it’s a joyful noise, kicking out records for the girls and boys
Stagger compares it to say, someone like Michael Franti, where there’s meaning to the music that people are partying to.
And more and more people are taking him up on that offer, with radio down in the States already spinning the songs, and more importantly, audiences connecting to him, with his music on a way they never have, digging deep enough into things to find something that matters.
“All of a sudden I’m a counsellor to people,” he says and laughs. “It’s a beautiful thing that it’s been able to connect with people.”
He continues, noting that his time on the road touring, time that once seemed like two decades of going nowhere, now has greater significance. “It feels like there’s a purpose for me being out there now. It’s not just fucking diary rock … I feel like I’m trying to change the world in whatever little way that I can, which is just to inspire people to learn to heal and learn to love themselves so that they can love other people.
“It’s not all kittens and rose in my life and it probably never will be … I don’t know that music can change the world but it can inspire people to change the world in their own way.
He pauses. “And I feel like there’s a purpose for me to be out there now.”
Leeroy Stagger performs a show Friday night at SAIT’s The Gateway with JJ Shiplett.
Mike Bell has been covering the Calgary music scene for the past 25 years with publications such as VOX, Fast Forward, the Calgary Sun and, most recently, the Calgary Herald. He is currently the music writer and content editor for theYYSCENE.ca, and the co-host of the show Saved By the Bell, which airs Wednesdays from 4-6 p.m. on CJSW 90.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter/@mrbell_23 or email him at email@example.com. He likes beer. Buy him one.