Less Is More: Shane Leonard’s new record exercises restraint with stunning results

Eric Christenson

SPIN CYCLE. Life changes and big challenges led to a transformative new solo album from Shane Leonard called Strange Forms. His release show is at Pine Hollow on July 20.
SPIN CYCLE. Life changes and big challenges led to a transformative new solo album from Shane Leonard called Strange Forms. His release show is at Pine Hollow on July 20.

It’s been almost exactly three years since the last Kalispell album, Printer’s Son, came out – and in those three years that band’s mastermind Shane Leonard has been keeping busy with other people’s music. Leonard’s become a sought-after music producer in the indie world, taking a guiding role making records with the likes of Anna Tivel and Her Crooked Heart. Not to mention he’s brought his panache as a multi-instrumentalist to bands like Field Report, S. Carey, The Stray Birds, and tons of other projects over the years.

His steady versatility and lasting work ethic lets him pursue music – his own or someone else’s – full-time from right here in Eau Claire. And there’s not that many people that can say that.

“I totally feel like I’m living the dream. Basically I work from ten to six everyday like a normal person, but I’m doing what I love,” he said. “I sometimes wonder when the other shoe’s going to drop and I have to get my job as a bank teller.”

“I wanted to be able to like get on stage with a guitar, play some f***ing rock ’n roll, and not get caught up in my frontal lobe.”

Leonard got around to writing his own songs again after a tumultuous two-year period wherein he lost his father, got married, and became one himself. His instinctual drive to write songs proved meditative and cathartic dealing with these transformative life swings. The work on his newest record Strange Forms started in the aftermath of his father’s death and wrapped up around the time his daughter was born.

Though, “It’s not a record about death at all,” he says. “Something that kept coming up in the lyrics for me was grappling with the idea of what is death and what does it mean about how we’re supposed to live.”

Putting Strange Forms together required a remarkable change in his musical perspective too. His Kalispell project funneled inspiration from Appalachian old-time folk music and a lifelong fluency in jazz and music theory into idyllic and beautiful, yet heavy songs. That formula – though it spawned some stunning songs back then – wasn’t going to work anymore. 

“It was kind of esoteric, cerebral. And it was just generally stressful for me I think.” Leonard said. “On stage, I’d have a banjo and my guitar and drums – I had this whole overwrought idea that I was going to present this intellectual Americana.” So he shed the name Kalispell, started going by his given name, took it down a minimalist route trying to write simpler songs with guts and heart. “I wanted to be able to like get on stage with a guitar, play some f***ing rock ’n roll, and not get caught up in my frontal lobe.”

So he demoed out the new crop of songs on his own with a Tascam four-track cassette recorder, and when he got together with his close friend and collaborator Brian Joseph to put ‘em on wax, the name of the game was less is more. Leonard plays all the instruments on Strange Forms, with Joseph’s role being to try to capture the sound at the source, keeping it gritty, rough around the edges, and above all else, real. A few sessions of chasing sounds and raw instrumentation morphed into a 12-song collection of Leonard’s finest work to date. Here, he eschews the pastoral ambience of Kalispell to unearth some seriously good Beatles-y pop gems that are crunchy, lo-fi, and exciting.

“Brian and I were in mutual agreement that we wanted it to be these kind of gnarly sounds and this direct earnest thing where we were capturing as much immediate energy as possible,” he said.

Creative people must create. It’s an ever-evolving, yet constant process. And when life throws you unfathomable challenges, to learn and grow you’ve gotta make something of it. Leonard’s story is a shining example of flipping your own script, taking a step back, and daring yourself to come out the other side stronger.

“You write songs, you play shows, you collaborate with people, and you continue the willingness to take risks,” he said. “All you can do is do the work. Just put it out there and trust that that is enough.”

Shane Leonard is hosting a night of music and interviews with many of the artists he’s produced for before performing music from Strange Forms at Pine Hollow Studio on July 20. Tickets are available at www.brownpapertickets.com. You can stream Strange Forms on Spotify and Apple Music, or nab a physical copy on vinyl or CD at shaneleonardmusic.bandcamp.com.