When Andy Stepanian and Mason Brent formed their new project Leon III (a stylization for the name Leon the Third), they showed the promise of an exciting new venture rooted in singer-songwriter sensibilities. Their self-titled debut in 2018 yielded powerful singles like “Between the Saddle & the Ground” and “Alberta,” tracks that showed some touches of experimentation on the alternative country template. With our premiere of their latest single “This Whisper Is Ours,” along with previous single “Fly Migrator,” the band shows they’ve seriously evolved their sound for new album Antlers in Velvet, which is out March 5, 2021.
“I think the songs on our first album probably had slightly more traditional structures and arrangements and that could account for a certain genre perception,” said Stepanian. “As a writer and a consumer of music, my tastes and tendencies keep evolving and that manifests itself in the songs. There’s elements of jazz, prog and psychedelic music that are either overt or just under the surface in the batch that make up this album…As Mark Nevers jokingly said, it’s ‘whatever genre “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” is.’ I guess that can mean everything from psychedelic to songwriter.”
Opening with a delicate arppegiated guitar figure, “This Whisper Is Ours” grows exponentially to include elements like slide guitar, complex synthesizer textures and a sonic presence that expresses the influence of country but has the suspense and heaviness of post-rock and the laid-back coolness of trip-hop. Lyrically the song is inspired a horrific incident in Texas, though it doesn’t take a literal approach to the storytelling, instead dealing in the heaviness of the secret between the co-conspirators.
“There was a particularly grizzly incident in Houston, (where I lived when I was writing songs for this album) where a couple paid a hitman to kill both of their former spouses,” said Stepanian. “The ‘hitman’ proved to be an undercover police officer. I typically don’t get inspired by stuff like this but ‘The Whisper is Ours’ pulled from that tale. The song is hardly a literal recap of the story but an exploration of sharing a secret with someone.”
While Stepanian and Brent are the core of Leon III, they received plenty of accompaniment by an impressive roster of musicians. Perusing the credits of the album, it’s clear that many are longtime members of Nashville’s world-renowned music scene.
“Many of the people that played on this album or the last one came to the project through Mark Nevers,” said Stepanian. “Mark produced both albums and has a long history with a certain subset of indie Nashville musicians because of his work with Lambchop and Silver Jews and Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy. William Tyler, Kai Welch, Jordan Caress, Paul Niehuas and Tony Crow all come from that world and each played a hand on lots of projects with Mark in the past. They were sort of natural fits when we were thinking up who might be on this record.”
William Tyler played guitar, Kai Welch played a multitude of instruments including the piano, pump organ and trumpet, Jorad Caress sings on the album, Paul Niehuas was on pedal steel, Tony Crow on piano. Others appearing on the album include Carole Rabinowitz, David Angell, Denis Solee and Mark Riddell.
“The guests musicians don’t really hear them until we are in the studio moments before we are about to record,” said Stepanian. “Sometimes, they don’t hear the demo at all so that their thoughts and conceptions of the song aren’t influenced by the demo. That makes it fun and assures you get fresh perspectives.
Another surprising appearance is Dana Colley of Morphine playing saxaphone on the record. He came to play on the record through a connection Stepanian happened to have with the band’s original drummer.
“It was kind of random how I hooked up with Dana,” he said. “I have a friend who is buddies with Jerome Deupree, the first drummer for Morphine. I was always a big Morphine fan and thought of some parts that would be well suited to Dana’s style. Jerome was kind enough to make the intro and Dana was cool about adding some saxophone to the tracks from his home studio.”
As far as the band’s outlook towards releasing an album that pushes expectations at a time during which a band cannot tour and build excitement for the songs? Stepanian admits it’s not ideal but hopes, with good reason, that people will sit down and take the time to really soak in the depth of the songs on the album.
“It’s not ideal,” said Stepanian. “But the album has been finished for a while and we are antsy to get it out there. Our hope is that people will have a little more time to be patient listeners and sit back and absorb the songs and the album as a whole. We have a bunch of videos and remixes and things to pile on the bonfire. Beyond that, we are just taking things as they come with regard to touring. With luck, things will start to loosen up in the spring of the year and we can get out there and play.”
Let’s hope Stepanian is right and we can see this exciting new project be able to take their expansive, genre-bending new sound on the road in 2021.
Anters In Velvet track list
1. “Fly Migrator”
2. “Faint Repeater”
3. “This Whisper Is Ours”
4. “Divining Rods”
5. “Rumors Of Water”
6. “Skeletal Pines”
8. “Antlers In Velvet”