Singer-songwriter Andrew Leahey has three wedding invitations on his refrigerator, and he can’t make it to any of them.
All three fall on dates he’ll be on tour supporting his latest album Skyline in Central Time, his first roots rock collection with his band, the Homestead, following a serious medical scare that nearly wrecked his music career. But missing weddings and other life celebrations is normal for most musicians like Leahey. They’re slaves to their craft.
Life around the home he and his wife Emily own in Nashville’s Germantown neighborhood is pretty much dedicated to music. He writes at least 7,000 words about it a week in his work as a freelance journalist in order to support his true passion — creating music. Working parallel careers can get exhausting in a music boom town like Nashville. There is so much good music to write about, and the hustle won’t stop.
Leahey does most of his active music listening while driving around in the car or on a 20-year-old Aiwa system in his dining area that only works with a remote control. Most of the buttons gave out years ago, but there is a fun electronic drum feature that still operates. He claps his hands for the family rescue cats Lupé and Lorenzo whenever they walk across the kitchen table. They have been trained to understand that applause means get down.
He sits down with a plate of cut up peach, two forks and a hot mug of Sing herbal tea for a little writer’s relief. After our CMT.com interview, he has to drop off his laptop at the Apple Store in Green Hills for repairs, and then he has transcribing to do. Maybe later, he’ll enjoy his other writer’s relief, which is binge-watching Friday Night Lights.
“It’s easier to watch Friday Night Lights because there’s five seasons and each season is 20 episodes,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. But generally, I’m working on something while we’re watching it. I could definitely use more breaks. But currently, I’m trying to make the music performance career as successful as my music writing. But I have to keep doing the music writing thing to pay for the music performance thing. I’m just hauling my butt off the whole way.”
“I’ve done the non-music job plenty of times for plenty of years,” he says. “There’s something to be said for clocking out and going home, and you have a different life that’s not related to your work at all. But why would you spend 40 hours a week doing something that you don’t like? I think if I was only living for the weekend, I would not be happy.”
Leahey is eternally grateful for having the life he has following a major health scare in 2013. For at least six years until then, he had been suffering from intense migraines once a week. Many doctors had a hard time diagnosing the problem. That year, he toured heavily in support of an independent four-song EP, and on his wife’s birthday in Nashville’s Centennial Park, he started to lose his balance.
“I felt something weird in my hearing,” he recalls, “like when you get a beep in your hearing. But, generally, that goes away. Mine didn’t go away. Then there was a clogged feeling that began to present itself, as well. It was like my ear had sand in it or something and it was throwing off my balance. We went to meet some friends at bowling later that night, and I would walk into stuff.”
After more misdiagnoses, doctors Alejandro Rivas and Reid Thompson from Vanderbilt Hospital’s otolaryngology department discovered an acoustic neuroma had been growing on a hearing nerve in Leahey’s right ear. Without their work, some of the music on Skyline in Central Time probably wouldn’t have happened.
“It was non-cancerous, thankfully,” Leahey says. “But those nerves are bundled with other nerves that control things like your balance. And it was causing problems because it was getting larger.
“They went into my head and cut a hole, pulled the tumor off and didn’t run into the many complications they could have. There were strong likelihoods I would have had damaged balance, facial paralysis and all kinds of stuff. Luckily none of that happened.”
After getting his skull closed up with titanium screws, he spent most of the following weeks recovering at home in a La-Z-Boy chair. In the days after surgery, any kind of noise was unbearable and every sound his right ear picked up came in dissonant.
“Playing music was impossible,” he says. “Every tone — the guitar, the vocals, the drums – I would hear a lower, imperfect interval. Like even with speaking with people, they had two voices. That was crazy.”
There was also a 50-percent chance he could have lost his hearing entirely in his right ear.
“It was guaranteed I’d lose it if I didn’t get the tumor out,” he says. “The operation was the better bet, but it was still a gamble. I was very worried about waking up and just hearing everything in mono. If it didn’t kill my playing and writing careers, they could have been thrown for a loop I didn’t want them to be thrown.”
Before his operation, Leahey booked a three-week tour, cutting short his recommended three-month recovery time.
“That was stupid,” he admits. “And everybody told me not to do it, but I had booked the tour before my operation because I wanted to give myself something I had to get better for. I wanted to give my body no choice but to come out of the operation OK and heal quite rapidly.
“I came back and was just in pain. My body was not happy. I wasn’t supposed to be carrying anything heavy. I was carrying guitar amps and not sleeping as much, just definitely not spending my days on a La-Z-Boy.”
Time on the road in 2014 was cut in half as he went back into the studio to finish Skyline in Central Time with Ken Coomer, whose production credits include Will Hoge’s The Wreckage and Draw the Curtains. The Nashville-based producer has also drummed for several acts including Wilco, Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris.
Released on Thirty Tigers, the 11-song Skyline in Central Time has sonic allusions of Hoge, Memphis rock legends Big Star and Leahey’s all-time favorite, Tom Petty. With the exception of “Penitentiary Guys” and “Stable Hand,” every song pulls from Leahey’s experience and offers incite into life as a rising Nashville musician today.
Originally written for a concept album about America’s rock star mobsters, “Penitentary Guys” is the story of Bonnie and Clyde from told from the perspective of Bonnie Parker’s husband, Roy.
“She wasn’t married to Clyde,” Leahey says. “She had this other husband whom she met in grade school. They married really young, and he was a small time criminal. While he was in jail, she went off with Clyde and did all kinds of other crazy stuff. But she was wearing her husband’s ring when she died. So, that song was what he must have been thinking. I don’t know why I wrote a song about that. I think I came across the word, ‘penitentiary,’ and I was like sweet word. I want to use that in a song. That was the first song that I wrote for the band.”
Leahey wrote the folk ballad “Stable Hand” on the inside flap of a Loretta Lynn autobiography while on a flight to Northern California to visit his father-in-law. Borrowing inspiration from Cold Mountain, the song is about a lonely man who only wants a relationship out of a desperate need to not be lonely.
At the moment, “When the Hinges Give” is his favorite song on the album. But it is also his toughest song to perform live because it was inspired by the harrowing two-month period between his tumor diagnosis and his operation. Over stark acoustic guitar and fiddle, Leahey sings of burning the candle at both ends to make the most out of the time he had with his wife.
“Emily and I were trying to spend time together without dwelling on what might happen at the hospital, because that would make our time together not as fun,” he says. “I honestly forget what the percentage of the chances of me dying was, but it was significant. It was more than the percentage of driving your car every day. And they wanted me to make up a will, too. I was not going to make a will. I didn’t want to plan for that scenario.”
Written two years ago, “Silver Linings” is about playing music in Nashville and watching what happens sometimes when some artists get their big break.
“There’s a ton of people in Nashville who start their careers making really good music, and then they’ll get their record deal,” he says. “That’s a tricky place to be, because it’s where the art becomes an industry. Once a label has money invested in you, it means there are more people coming into the studio to watch your progress, more people joining you during the board room meetings, more people who want to make sure they get their money back. You become beholden to a bigger crowd. If you’re not careful, the cool, rougher edges of your music can get sanded down. Silver linings never come for free.”
The girl Leahey mentions in the second verse is a nod to Margo Price. At the time the song was written, she was performing regular gigs for 20 people at a time at the East Nashville dive, the Five Spot.
“She was working her ass off,” Leahey recalls. “And it’s hard to get onstage and give a killer show when there’s barely any people in the audience. I have a lot of respect for artists who chase down their big break and just play poorly attended show after poorly attended show in the hopes that something will give. I think it goes against a lot of people’s human nature because it doesn’t always look like it’s working. You just have to believe you’re training yourself for the period where all the eyes are going to come to you all at once.”
Since he writes so much about music for a living, finding time to write his own music can be difficult.
“Inspiration is very piecemeal for me,” he says. “I’ll hear something, or an idea will come through. I think that’s probably because I work too much, too. I’m writing articles and so that probably drains the part of your brain that would otherwise write a song. So generally, I just get like a slow trickle of ideas. I’ll put them in my phone, hum a melody or write down a lyric.
“But I’ve got a lot written already for the next album. I have quite a lot that we’ve road-tested already. So I do not plan on there being a long period between this album and the next one.”
Skyline in Central Time is available now.