I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Taylor Leonhardt, whose album River House has thoroughly caught the Rabbit Room’s attention with its lyrical subtlety and invitational, spacious production style. Whether you are already familiar with this album or new to the scene, this interview will have something for you.
Taylor Leonhardt will be joined tonight at the last Local Show of the season by John Tibbs, Andy Gullahorn, and Jill Phillips, and there are still a few tickets left. You can grab them here at the Rabbit Room Store.
Drew: I’d love to get some backstory on how you got into music and songwriting. What’s that story for you?
Taylor: Music was always on in my childhood. My parents will say I’ve always had an inclination towards music, and I always loved listening, especially to whatever my dad was listening to.
Then in middle school, two things happened: first, I was singing in the congregation one day and a woman leaned over and told me I should be in the choir. That was the first time I realized people liked how my voice sounded. I tried out for church and school choir because of that comment, so that was an essential thing for me.
The other thing is that we moved from big city Houston to a small town in Texas, and it took me a little while to make friends. So I hung out at home a lot and my dad would pull his guitar down from his closet and play me Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Eagles, old country like Don Williams, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, and so on. I would just watch and pay attention, and one day it clicked that if I learned how to play guitar, I could accompany myself. There was also something really compelling to me about listening to words being sung—it occurred to me that I could write my own songs, so I got my dad to show me standard guitar chords, and from there I looked up chord charts for all kinds of songs and figured out how to play my favorites.
It was truly a hobby until college, when I started taking it more seriously, and I would play gigs and open mic nights with friends. I was a bit reluctant there, because the performance aspect scared me. I had grown up in choir, but it’s more vulnerable to sing alone. But I grew a little bit of confidence, and then there was one very significant moment when I was leading worship at church and someone said, “Hey, we just went to this thing called a house concert, and we loved it! We really want to host one, and we want you to be our first artist.” So I agreed and played all the songs I had!
That night I felt something profound, this deep sense of the delight of God. I felt his pleasure that evening and realized I was connected to something much bigger than me. I was very nervous but it was also such a joyful time. From that point on, I decided to pursue music.
Drew: Your story reminds me of conversion stories—some people have one specific life-changing moment they can point to and others speak of it as more of an ongoing process. It’s cool that you had a specific day where your pursuit of music began.
Taylor: It was helpful for me to remember later on how I felt that day. At the times when I’ve been less sure of my craft, I’ve been able to think back to how I felt at that first house concert. And I’ve done so many house shows now—every one of them is different, but they always foster deep connection.
Drew: So you said five years ago you began pursuing music seriously, then you released your first full-length record last fall. What’s the story between those two points? How have the past five years led you to River House?
Taylor: Well first, I was aware that I needed to grow in my craft as a writer, so before I recorded an EP, I set out to discern what I wanted to say and how to say it. I was fortunate to meet some people in Raleigh who are excellent writers, like Christa Wells and Jess Ray. The two of them became close friends and I’ve received so much wisdom from them.
Then I recorded an EP and Jess produced it. At first, I merely wanted some demos to have some songs recorded, but not necessarily in a professional way yet. We started recording in this fledgling home studio Jess had set up, then about halfway through we realized it sounded really good. So we decided to put a little more time and money into the project and made the demos into an acoustic EP.
As soon as I released that in 2013, it opened the floodgates for me with writing. I got tired of old songs so quickly and all I wanted to do was write new songs. From there, I had a year and a half or so of some pretty intense inspiration. I had about twenty songs I really liked at that point, which we whittled down to what ended up on River House.
Drew: It seems that your story is so interconnected with the stories of others surrounding you. I love that because I think that’s really the way it works: when we’re pursuing what we love and learning who we are, that tends to happen in community. I’m sure you’ve heard the Rabbit Room mantra, “Art nourishes community and community nourishes art.” I wonder if you have any specific stories about discovering your voice, where that was happening in tandem with the encouraging voices of others, in the context of friendships and relationships. How have you most powerfully seen art and community interact in this symbiotic relationship?
Taylor: I remember telling friends and family at some point that I was working a lot with these two other artists in Raleigh, that we were playing a lot of shows together and such. Because at this point, Jess and I had gone on several tours together where I would open and back her up or vice versa, and the same thing with Christa. I enjoyed that so much because I’d rather get in the car with a friend or two than by myself. I loved it and would tell folks about that and sometimes get the response of, “Aren’t these people technically your competition?”
It made me realize that I had never thought to look at it that way, to see others as competition. I had lived a lot of my life with the intuition that everyone can be your teacher. We all have something to give to each other. I have felt that in my friendships with those two women especially, Christa and Jess. There may be times where I take a supporting role with what they’re doing, but then there are other times, like when I was recording River House, when I was deeply supported as well.
It was in the process of crowdfunding and making that record that I most felt how people are so happy to be part of what you’re doing. It’s special to invite others in. It’s such a joy to listen back—albums act as these really cool pieces of my life, documenting the help of all the folks who were involved.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it looks like to celebrate other people rather than compete with them. It’s that whole idea of a Kingdom economy—in God’s world there’s no lack. We can celebrate other people and share in their joy because that doesn’t mean there’s less joy, life, or love for us. I’ve seen that fleshed out in my music community here in Raleigh, as well as in Nashville with the Rabbit Room: a real delight in celebrating others and pointing out the good work being done.
Drew: One of my favorite professors has pointed out that the very act of singing together almost has to be a celebration of each other. For me to sing, for my voice to occupy the air around us, doesn’t mean that your voice can’t occupy the same air. Our voices help each other and the harmony that’s achieved is more than the sum of its parts.
With River House, that was something that struck me as I was listening: there’s a subtlety to the songs and their delivery, on your part as well as on the part of all the musicians involved. There’s so much space, and I think it’s one of the real virtues of the record. Was that purposeful? I know often it’s not at all, then you look back and see it’s there. But did you notice that sense of hospitality and spaciousness developing as you worked on the record?
Taylor: That’s so interesting that you’re hearing that, because from the beginning I did want the songs on River House to be all about making space for people and inviting them to reconsider who God is, what they’ve imagined him to be like versus how he’s revealed himself. From start to finish, those songs are very much about God becoming more than just an idea I’ve mentally assented to. When we actually listen for him, we come face-to-face with him and see that he’s real, that his heart beats. One of my favorite lines from a song recently is Andrew Peterson’s “His Heart Beats.” Every time I get to that line, it’s just amazing to think, “he has a beating heart!”
I wanted to make space for myself and others to hear God. The songs are invitational in that way. We didn’t sit down at the beginning and try to make the songs musically spacious as well, but I do think the musical form naturally followed what our hearts were after to begin with. We were just trying to let the songs be what they wanted to be. “Spacious” is a word I’ve heard used to describe the record a lot, and I’m very glad it has been that for people.
Drew: One song that serves as a great example of this is “Would You Be Well.” I was about halfway through the song when I realized, “This song doesn’t have a chorus!” Not that songs have to have choruses, of course, and if it had any kind of refrain, it would probably just strain the song and make it try too hard to say what it’s saying. But instead, each verse ends and then puts you in this instrumental space afterwards to let those words you’ve just sung sink in. And that’s very effective.
Taylor: Sometimes I try in the writing process to squeeze more out of a song than I should, maybe add a pre-chorus or bridge or something, and I do remember wondering if that particular song needed a chorus. I wrote it for someone in my family who had been far from joy for a long time. I wanted so badly to have the right thing to say to him, a solution, but I didn’t. There was no magic word that would make him well, but what I could do was hold that space for him. That song became a prayer. So I think it’s fitting that when you get to the part where you expect a chorus, the words stop.
Drew: It works so well. One thing Pete Peterson has talked about, and I think this is a great observation, is that we really neglect the work that comes after releasing a project, whether it’s a book or album or whatever. We put so much effort into the making of it and the releasing of it, but then after that, the shape of the work shifts. It’s not over just because it’s released; you really have to sustain it and fight for it, make sure people hear it.
You released River House in September of last year, so it hasn’t been a year yet, but you’re rounding that corner. I would love to know how the shape of your work has shifted since putting this full-length album into the world.
Taylor: That’s such a great question. I appreciate it because I think people often jump to the next thing too quickly. I’ve already gotten lots of questions about when the next record is coming out. I’m not there yet at all. I’m still just laying in the middle of this one! When I released my EP I was ready to jump into the next project, but with River House, it’s been around eight months and I still feel like I’m right in the middle of it.
We did the release show, and then I really wanted to do a tour, so I planned a fall house concert tour with Carly Bannister. For most house show tours I’ve done, I’ve been more of a supporting artist, so it was new for me to take the reigns on booking. I learned so much and discovered that my songs were really finding a home in people. Then in the spring, I jumped on this International Justice Mission tour with Jess Ray and ForBrothers.
The shape of my work has looked like getting these songs in front of people who haven’t met them or met me yet, and it’s been a joy. I also love the way that songs take a new shape after their release. They live in such a specific place in your soul, then when you share them, you give up your rights of interpretation. I love hearing how particular songs are connecting with others in unique ways that I may not expect.
I still feel very much inside of River House creatively—I haven’t written very much since. The common fear writers have is, “Have I written my last good song? Are there any more?” So I have glimpses of that fleeting fear, but life has proven so far that there are always new expressions around the corner; it’s just hard to think of them before their time.
Drew: Everybody’s always in a certain season of life, and it’s no use trying to live in another one.
Taylor: Right. I think the best advice I’ve ever received is to simply be faithful to what’s in front of you. When I worry too much about the next album, how long it will take to put out something new, when I’ll be able to play at larger venues, whatever the thing is that you can target as you look at other people’s progress and compare yourself—not that there’s no place for making real goals—but there’s always such great peace and good medicine in asking what’s in front of me right now, what audience the Lord has given me, what are the songs, and be faithful to that.
I love playing house concerts, these smaller, intimate shows we’ve been doing, and I think it will continue to look like that for me for a little while. The shape of my work has felt like going into new living rooms and churches, making friends, and doing it again and again. You develop relationships along the way, come back and visit people, and so on. I like that vision for a music career, and I’m glad to be in the middle of it.
You can listen to the opening track from River House, “Everything,” below and purchase tickets for tonight’s Local Show here.