When Judah & the Lion first made it big, their songs were largely celebratory.
“My life is real great,” frontman Judah Akers coolly delivers in both the first and the last verses of their breakthrough single, "Take It All Back."
Pep Talks, the outfit's third LP, goes in a different direction. It deals with love, divorce, addiction, and early adulthood. The primary songwriting catalyst was Akers' father's affairs — and his struggle to stay sane during the most professionally prosperous yet emotionally trying time of his life. They'll perform some of their new songs at The Van Buren on Wednesday, October 16.
The crown jewel of the album, "Pictures," features country-music superstar Kacey Musgraves essentially playing the role of Akers' mother. In the song, she's packing up to move out of the broken family's home.
But Pep Talks, which came out this year, isn't about Akers' specific story. It's about the need to keep it all together as the things around you fall apart.
"There's a lot going on the record dealing with the crap that I think is inevitable for each human to go through," says Nate Zuercher, the band's banjo player, in conversation with Phoenix New Times. "Everyone's dealing with their own stuff, and hopefully we can find encouragement and not feel so alone in the midst of that."
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Judah & the Lion long have been known for their genre-defiant mishmash of styles. With Zuercher on banjo, Brian Macdonald on mandolin, and their bombastic electronic tracks, they create a sound that can't be heard anywhere else. The best example of this envelope-pushing on Pep Talks is "Don't Mess With My Mama."
"I got in a pretty gnarly fistfight with my dad in the middle of all this, and we wanted a song that matched the intensity I was feeling at the time, being so angry at someone you love so much," says Akers in a news release.
On the mellower end is the Kacey Musgraves track, which is slow, sad, and brutally from the heart.
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"We recorded the song 'Pictures' and felt like it needed a female vocal to come in and be a part of it," Zuercher says. "It was amazing to see how particular she was. She took a lot of ownership over it and made sure it exactly what she wanted and had a lot of really good ideas and feedback. It was perfect; it was a dream come true."
The tune does present a small problem. Musgraves can't be on tour with them, so they revamped the song inspired by a remix on SoundCloud in Musgraves' absence.
"That's something we always love to do, almost treat the live show performance as making another record," Zuercher says. "That was a particularly fun one to change up and play live. It has much more energy than the original song, but again still carries the emotional weight of what it was intended."
Judah & the Lion are scheduled to perform at The Van Buren on Wednesday, October 16. Tickets are $35 to $38 via Ticketweb.