After two decades making music in New York’s cramped quarters and rehearsing in “dudes’ basements,” Hamilton Leithauser needed something different. The Walkmen singer and accomplished solo artist set to work building a studio space in his home, a journey that transformed his whole musical approach and led to his new solo album The Loves of Your Life. But before he got there, Leithauser’s new environment and approach led to a period of intense writer’s block.
“I couldn’t find anything exciting to sing, and I just didn’t have that same feeling that I used to. I didn’t know if it was the process; I used to sit in a room with a loud band banging away and I’d just try to sing on stuff,” he says over the phone. “But now, I had these finished pieces and was trying to add onto them. It felt disconnected and wrong.”
After making a concerted effort to improve as a player and producer, Leithauser had completed several instrumental tracks, but was struggling to figure out what to put atop them so much that he briefly considered bringing in another vocalist to sing lead. Inspiration struck in an unlikely place: a family ride on the Long Island Cross-Sound Ferry.
A casual conversation with a man at the ferry bar lingered in Leithauser’s head, and much like I Had a Dream That You Were Mine’s standout track “The Bride’s Dad,” the singer turned that fateful encounter into a musical character study.
“I thought, ‘There must be some kind of fire in that guy. There must be some type of story,’” Leithauser recalls.
That inspiration led to the aptly named “Cross-Sound Ferry,” and served as the catalyst for Leithauser writing all the lyrics of The Loves of Your Life, an album in which each song is devoted to a specific person. In some cases, they’re as tangential as a passenger on a ferry or a stranger on a park bench, while others focus on family and lifelong friends.
“At some point it dawned on me: It is fun writing about these strangers, but what would be really fun and really dangerous would be to write about people I know,” he says. “That was when I turned a corner.”
The characters are united by Leithauser’s keen eye for detail — a lipstick-stained glass of rum and ginger ale, a fingernail chewed and spat into a pool — as well as a general sense of affection for them, no matter their circumstances. One particularly affecting song, “Don’t Check the Score,” focuses on an old friend who, Leithauser explains, “Had some troubles as we grew up.”
“The people I write about, I’m rooting for all of them,” he says.
Some of the tracks, like “The Garbage Men” are sparse on detail, akin to expressionist portraits. Others, like “Til Your Ship Comes In” are more painstaking. But all of them bristle with musical life: chugging drums, wistful, twangy guitars, and plinking barroom piano show off Leithauser’s improved musical acumen. Despite making acclaimed records over the better part of two decades, he says he could never have written an album like this earlier in his career.
Leithauser says the transition from playing in a five-piece band to being in a duo with Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij was strange enough, but transitioning to being fully solo has been an even bigger adjustment. He does have some helping hands though, including backup vocals by his wife, Anna Stumpf, and daughters, Georgiana and Cokie, on “The Garbage Men” and “The Old King.” The two young girls charmed viewers in a Pitchfork video interview from 2017, but Leithauser says they are not the easiest studio guests he’s ever had.
“I’ll get them to sing one thing and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Daddy, daddy, daddy, I want to do this!’ They’re both trying to press the buttons in the studio and it devolves,” he says. “You have about 45 seconds with them before things start getting out of control.”
A natural assumption of the title The Loves of Your Life would be that it’s Leithauser’s perspective and referring to the loves of his life. But actually, he says, it’s meant to empathize with the subjects of the tracks.
“What I was thinking about when I said The Loves of Your Life was the motivation, whatever’s keeping these people going. Whatever they’re pursuing,” he says. “It’s different for everyone, but it’s about whatever’s driving you. It’s ‘you’ in the second person. The loves of your life.”
Leithauser started by writing descriptive prose about each character, paragraphs that contained details and anecdotes about the subjects. He then paired the lyrics with the complete pieces of music, though he says that none of his initial combinations wound up being the final versions. While that process differed from his collaborative work, shifting the focus of his songwriting was also a significant change for Leithauser as a songwriter.
“When I was younger, I would always write about myself and my situations and the other person I was having a problem with. I always was very insular about that,” he says. “I do feel like it was a big step for me to move out of that and to have characters and make it more like writing fiction.”
All of these changes reinvigorated Leithauser, and he sounds excited talking about plans for touring around this new solo album. Overall, he says that being static is the worst thing for him as a musician, and one of the few constants in his 20-year career has been change.
“You’ve got to find a new way to keep it exciting and find something that is genuinely interesting. If you don’t, you can’t fake it. It’s pointless, it’ll always sound boring” he says. “Or at least, I can’t fake it.”
As our interview winds down, I can hear one of Leithauser’s daughters ask, “Who are you talking to, Daddy?” Having spoken candidly for an hour about the making of another strong, singular solo album, the singer says goodbye and gets back to the loves of his life.
Grant Rindner is a freelance music and culture journalist in New York. He has written for Dazed, Rolling Stone and COMPLEX.