When Dylan LeBlanc opens his mouth to sing on his third album, Cautionary Tale, you'll hear echoes of Jason Isbell. LeBlanc's high, plaintive voice can sometimes be eerily similar to Isbell's. But there's more vulnerability when he sings; there's a lot of fear and hesitation that hints at the amount of pain hidden in the lyrics.
Cautionary Tale is 10 songs of doubt, fear, and regret, seen from the other side of a three-year period of depression, alcohol, and drug abuse and insecurity. On the title track, an atmospheric, largely acoustic rocker built around a gently pulsing rhythm, LeBlanc sings, "I do it to myself/ Like I never get tired of bleeding." On the propulsive, intense ballad "Man Like Me," over a sparing mix of spidery electric guitars and subtle, string-like keyboards, LeBlanc sings of the women he's wronged in the past, sighing that the "things I've said and done/ Have always been completely different things."
The album is a reflection of a dark period stirred by one of rock music's great conundrums: Critical adulation doesn't always, or even often, indicate commercial success. LeBlanc's first two albums, 2010's Paupers Field and 2012's Cast The Same Old Shadow, garnered raves from all the right places, with The Guardian calling Shadow's songs "as beautiful as they are bleak," and calling the overall effect "eerie rather than unsettling." Rolling Stone's review of Paupers Field said that LeBlanc had "the doomed romanticism of Townes Van Zandt." Off the strength of those reviews, LeBlanc played shows with Lucinda Williams, Drive-By Truckers, the Alabama Shakes, and even Bruce Springsteen.
And despite all of that, his records simply didn't sell.
"I wasn't making any money," LeBlanc says. "I felt like I was walking in place, and I just got kind of burned out by going nowhere. My label (Rough Trade) didn't believe in me, they wouldn't give me money to bring a band out, but I couldn't find anyone to start a band anyway."
It was a sad state of affairs, not just because of LeBlanc's skill as a songwriter and singer, but because music was in his blood. His father James LeBlanc was a singer and songwriter working primarily out of Muscle Shoals, Ala. who had his songs recorded by Travis Tritt, Rascal Flatts, Kenny Chesney, Gary Allan, and many more. After being raised by his mother in Shreveport, La., LeBlanc moved to Muscle Shoals in his teens and watched his father work.
"When I got to know my dad, he became really influential in terms of my songwriting," LeBlanc says. "He would tell me you just have to do it. You have to practice it like everything else, practice and never stop practicing. And that always stuck with me."
But his father wasn't the only influence. LeBlanc spent time hanging around the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, hanging out with Jason Isbell while he was recording and spending time with the studio's co-owner, Rick Hall.
"I'd talk to Jason a lot about songwriting and music in general," he says. "He was a big influence. And Rick Hall would call me up to his office and talk about when he was a young songwriter growing up in Nashville, and about guys like Owen Bradley, who wrote a bunch of classic hits for George Jones. He would tell me stories and encourage me."
With that kind of informal education, and a deal with a label like Rough Trade, LeBlanc thought his future was assured, a viewpoint he now calls "naïve."
"I thought that once you signed a record deal you became a rockstar overnight," he says, "and that's not the way it works. It's been years and years of touring, hard work, and making one fan at a time."
Over time, that work started to wear on him, along with his growing alcohol and drug problems.
"I was drinking a lot and using a lot, and I decided just to not write anymore," he says. "I decided to get a regular job and try to fall into society. It was a sad time because I love music and I wanted to make it happen and it wasn't."
After a year of not writing at all, and sinking deeper into addiction, LeBlanc had an epiphany about himself.
"I was so beat down, but I realized it didn't have anything to do with music, it had everything to do with me," he says. "I couldn't hold onto personal relationships, I was alienating everybody, and I was a parade of misery and depression and I couldn't get my shit together. Then I had a moment where I started to do some research into my own self and figure out a few things. I realized it was all on me; it didn't have anything to do with anyone else."
The process of getting his shit together and getting sober eventually poured out into the songs that make up Cautionary Tale. And through a couple of friends of his, he found a place to put that music out. Engineer Ben Tanner and The Civil Wars' John Paul White had started a label called Single Lock Records.
"I didn't have any money, but I asked them, 'If you'll record this for me, maybe we could try doing an American release and seeing how it does,'" he says. "And it did really well. They're a smart label, and they work smart. It worked out and I'm really grateful to them."
Now touring with a full band called the Pollies, the sober and focused singer-songwriter says this time around, playing music has finally brought him some happiness.
"Luckily no one knew who I was anyway, so it was like I was never even there," he says with a laugh. "This is a business where once you've gotten a chance and you don't happen, rarely do you get a second chance. I enjoy it a lot more now. I enjoy the work and the results I get. And I'm up for the hard work part of it. I try to keep the perspective that it's about the quality of the music. If the songs are there, that's all that matters. It was all about the party before; now it's about giving people a good show, no matter how big or small it might be."