Photo: Chad Crawford

Living The Bright Side

Judah & The Lion’s Pep Talks pries light from the shadows

It’s a spring morning in Tennessee, but as the temperature climbs above 85 degrees, it already feels like summertime.

“It’s hot!” says Judah Akers, out for a morning walk in his East Nashville neighborhood. Then, a breath later, he softens his tone. “Man, it’s beautiful out here. Nashville feels great right now.”

As the frontman of Judah & The Lion, Akers has built a career upon his willingness to look at the bright side. The band’s first two albums, 2014’s Kids These Days and 2016’s Folk Hop ‘n’ Roll, are celebrations of a sound and spirit rooted in a Millennial-friendly mix of anthemic pop and hip-hop. Produced by Dave Cobb, the records combine banjos, dance beats, and hooks built for an arena, shot through with lyrics that urge the band’s audience to follow their hearts and pursue
their dreams.

“We give [fans] an experience,” Akers told me in 2016, back when Judah & The Lion’s live show — a joyous, larger-than-life spectacle — was the main driver behind the band’s rapidly expanding audience. “We throw an absolute rager, and all the songs are made with that in mind. They’re fun, carefree, and youthful, and we live our lives that way, too.”

At the time, there was a lot to be happy about. As 2016 gave way to 2017, bandmates Akers, Brian Macdonald, and Nate Zuercher scored their first chart-topping hit with “Take It All Back.” Less than a week after the song climbed to number one on Billboard’s “US Alternative  Songs” chart, the guys performed it on Conan. Five days after that, they kicked off a nationwide arena tour with Twenty One Pilots. The tour ran for two months, with roughly 10,000 fans showing up every night. Fun, carefree, and youthful, indeed.

No good buzz lasts forever, though. While Judah & The Lion remained on the road, things began unraveling back at home. Akers’ parents split up. Several family members passed away. Others began sinking into alcoholism. Sitting in the band’s tour bus after each show, Akers tried to wrap his head around this turn of events. Judah & The Lion’s popularity was soaring, but the gap between his band’s good fortune and his personal struggles had never seemed so wide.

Photo: Chad Crawford

Judah & The Lion’s newest release, Pep Talks, was written during those late-night moments of soul searching, hours after another show’s encore, the sound of the crowd still rattling Akers’ eardrums as he struggled to calm his worried mind. His mom was drinking herself to death. He was fighting — sometimes literally — with his dad. This time, it wasn’t so easy to look on the bright side.

Could Pep Talks be considered a dark album? In some ways, yes. “Why Did You Run” finds Akers fielding a phone call from his drunk mother, whose bad habits have landed her in jail. Later, he takes a swing at his father during “Don’t Mess With My Mama.” On paper, this is grim stuff. Even so, the songs still feature the familiar ingredients of Judah & The Lion’s euphoric rush: EDM drops, marching band percussion, banjo riffs, and gauzy keyboards. Some of Akers’ melodies even sound like soccer stadium chants and, just for good measure, there’s also a cameo by Kacey Musgraves, another Nashville-based genre-bender who swept the Grammy Awards with her own album, Golden Hour, less than a month before Pep Talks’ release. This is modern pop music on a massive scale, in other words — a musical pick-me-up, designed to rally festival-sized crowds around the mental struggles that are familiar for many of us.

“Up until this point, the basic narrative of our music was, ‘Go live your best life, because you only have one of them,’” Akers explains. “And that was authentic, because we were a band that had dropped out of school, made some music, and begun to travel the world. The message on Pep Talks is more specific and more painful, but it’s hopeful, too. It’s not about lingering inside the pain. It’s meant to encourage people to move forward, no matter what season they’re in. The narrative has shifted a bit, but the overall message is still the same — it’s hope.”

Judah & The Lion’s narrative isn’t the only thing that’s shifted over the years. The music itself has also evolved and expanded. Long before Akers and company landed gigs at high-capacity venues like Ascend Amphitheater (where they’ll headline a hometown show — their largest to date — on Aug. 24), they played their first gig together at a Belmont University talent show. The event was sports-themed — a benefit of sorts for the school’s athletic department — and as a member of the Belmont Bruins baseball team, Akers was asked to kick off the evening with a few songs. He’d had a bit of experience fronting a worship band at his uncle’s church back home in Cookeville, Tennessee, but he was still relatively green, having spent far more time on the baseball field than onstage. Joined by music majors Brian Macdonald and Nate Zuercher, Akers serenaded the crowd that night with a sound that was split halfway between worship music and Mumford & Sons-influenced folk.

“Our name at the time was just Judah,” he remembers. “We hadn’t played any real shows yet. I later got made fun of by my baseball team, because I’d named the band after just my name. So we changed the name.”

Next up was a gig at 12th & Porter, where the band performed a mostly acoustic set that was devoid of the electronic enhancements — synthesizers, dance beats, digital loops — that would eventually fill their music. A slide guitarist even joined them onstage that night. “We were wearing fedoras, suspenders, top hats, and all these folky things,” Akers says with a laugh. “We were still very much discovering who we were.”

Things changed after the bandmates collectively dropped out of school and hit the road. The decision to leave Belmont wasn’t an easy one, but Akers’ baseball schedule had prevented the group from doing much touring, as had Macdonald’s part-time job at the Belmont School of Music. Free of the commitments that had kept them close to campus, they began touring the country with songwriters like Andrew Ripp and Mat Kearney, sometimes even sharing a cramped van with the headliner. Along the way, Judah & The Lion’s music lost its rustic roots and gained an electric edge. Their live show became their calling card, and their albums — filled with the band‘s “folk-hop” sound — reflected the band’s onstage energy. Eventually, after traveling the country by van for five years, Judah & The Lion graduated to a bus in 2017.

“I remember Matt Kearney being on a bus when we were still in a van, and he said, ‘Don’t move to a bus until you’re truly ready for it, because once you do, you’ll never want to tour in a van again,’” Akers says. “He’s right. The van comes with amazing perks, because you really feel like you’re in this thing together. The camaraderie — the brotherhood or sisterhood that comes from that experience — can be great for a younger band. But man, it feels very good to be in a bus. This fall, we’re actually going to have two busses: one for the band and one for
the crew.”

Moving from a van to a bus is a milestone for any band. Expanding that fleet to two vehicles is a rarity, especially for an independent act. Without support from a major label, Judah & The Lion have risen to the same level as their heroes. That growth isn’t the result of a music magnate’s deep pockets; instead, it’s the product of a diverse sound that targets a generation of music fans who are more accustomed to the genre-jumping variety of a Spotify playlist than the homogeny of an album by a single artist. To put it bluntly, Judah & The Lion sound like 2019 … and 2019 is shaping up to be a damn good year for the band.

Maybe it’s not so hard to look at the bright side, after all.

Back in East Nashville, it’s getting too warm for Akers to continue his morning walk. Before he heads home, though, he takes a minute to recognize the role that this neighborhood — and, more broadly, the city as a whole — has played in his band’s rise from fedora-wearing folk act to international boundary-breakers.

“There’s no other place that feels like home,” he says. “We’re so proud to be from Nashville. It’s a community-driven place, and Pep Talks was birthed out of that spirit. We worked on it with our local friends, like engineers Logan Matheny and Eddie Spear. Our music video director is Matt DeLisi, who’s another Nashville dude. Matt actually helped us write a song on the record, too, and my wife’s best friend did a lot of the branding for the release. It’s crazy how blessed we are, just to have so many creative and gifted people right here at our fingertips. We’re proud of the city, with East Nashville being at the heart that creativity and energy. We’re proud to represent what the place means to us. For me, there’s no greater place to live.”

Judah & The Lion’s latest album Pep Talks is available at fine record stores or can be streamed at judahandthelion.com.