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For Judah & the Lion, the last two years should’ve been the best of their lives as the Nashville band toured behind a powerful single and a genre-upending album, sharing stages with heroes and playing to oceans of fans. But as everything was coming together for them, singer-guitarist Judah Akers’ world was falling apart as his family was hit by alcoholism and affairs, death and divorce. From that tension comes Pep Talks, the trio’s third LP and a hard left turn into deeply personal terrain. Knowing they had something new on their hands, Judah, Brian Macdonald (mandolin), and Nate Zuercher (banjo) took their time crafting a set of songs that not only shores up their one-of-a-kind sound—a heart-pounding whirl of folk, bluegrass, rock, hiphop and electronic production—but takes the listener on a bracingly candid, surprisingly anthemic journey from the kind of pain that tears your whole world apart to the sort of hard-won hope that can bridge the deepest of rifts.
“Up to this point, the band’s message has mostly been: ‘Live your best life! Pursue your dreams! Follow your heart!'” says Judah, “We had to start this record with broken-ness, with this cry that says, ‘I don’t want to hide this from anyone anymore. I’m going through something. I need help.'”
The first songs released from Pep Talks also open the album and they drop us right into Judah’s struggle. Epic overture “Pep Talk” is a wordless swell of anxiety, woe, resolve and musical might that feeds right into “Quarter-Life Crisis.” There, over a piano-pounding track that’d make Arcade Fire shout along, Judah admits to feeling alone and powerless, in need of support. With the next track “Why Did You Run?”—a Zedd-evoking trip into organic-goes-digital EDM—we start to see why he feels that way as the people he used to rely on end up in jail or absentee, leaving behind “a lost kid looking for a home he once knew.” And on “i’m ok.” he spells it out: his aunt has died (of an overdose), his parents are splitting up for good, and he’s on the road, unable to face it all. The song goes through a transformation both aural and lyrical, from upbeat rock to moody rap as Judah first brushes off his friends’ concerns, then admits, “I’m not okay, come get my pain.”
“In the middle of all of this it was very hard for me to admit to myself I wasn’t doing good,” says Judah. “I’d get texts from people checking in. I’d always say, ‘I’m okay,’ but inside I was almost annoyed, which is an awful response, like, ‘Just stop asking. I don’t want to think about it.’ That forced me to go, ‘No, this is exactly why I do need to think about it: I need to process things.'”
Many of Pep Talks’ songs were written on the bus after the band’s high energy shows, emotions and scenes flooding Judah’s head as he struggled to sleep. Empathy courses through yearning on the Kacey Musgraves duet “pictures” as he writes from the point of view of his mom packing up the family home. Entropy reigns in the relentless, synth-and-banjo-driven “Over my head” where he tries in vain to push the pain away: “Hydrate, caffeinate, medicate, repeat.” Acoustic tearjerker “Queen Songs / human.” is steeped in nostalgia, Judah recalling childhood memories of his mother back before her drinking got too bad to ignore, while its surging coda “human.” (which incorporates a poem by Judah and his sister) attempts to find common ground in the present. And then there’s the snarling, trap-addled, bass-dropping “Don’t Mess with My Mama,” inspired by an actual fistfight between Judah and his dad over the latter’s affairs in the middle of all the Akers family strife.
“We wanted a song that matched the level of intensity I was feeling at the time, being so angry at someone you love so much,” says Judah. “For the last chorus, we all took our shirts off, got our headphones on, turned it up way too loud and started screaming nonsense into the mic.”
Judah & the Lion has been a family unto itself since forming at Nashville’s Belmont University in 2011. Judah was from nearby Cookeville, an aspiring baseball player with a secret love for folk guitar. Brian came from Chicagoland and was mostly obsessed with piano. Nate, a Coloradan, was a son of symphony players but preferred metal. Their differences were their strength as they shaped their sound over a bluegrass-heavy debut, Kids These Days, and its mold-breaking follow-up Folk Hop n’ Roll, both produced by Dave Cobb (Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell) and made in under two weeks. For Pep Talks, they took three months, coproduced as a band alongside two friends (Brian’s college roomie Drew Long and local artist Daniel James), and kept the guest list tight: drummer Darren King (ex Mutemath), a hero to the guys; Kacey, whose transcendent Golden Hour was a powerful influence; and genre-flouting tour buddy, Jon Bellion.
“We’ve never had an environment that was so relaxed—where everybody could speak so freely and be themselves and have fun,” says Brian. Nate adds, “Judah’s openness was inspiring, and I feel so much more ownership with this project because we all decided to believe in ourselves.”
In fact, the swaggering, bouncy Bellion feature, “Passion Fashion” testifies to that sentiment as Judah sings “I got ambition, yeah I’m on a mission … there’s no stopping me now, Imma do me.” If that lyric seems out of step with what you know of Pep Talks so far, that’s because we skipped ahead a few songs. Just past the LP’s halfway mark, Judah starts healing. “7000x” is a humble fight song whose moody groove nods to those other underdogs (and friends) twenty one pilots. The dubwise “JOYBOY” beams its powerful mantra. “GoofBallerz” is pure release, a self-aware ditty that captures the humor and ease of the band’s gigs, while “Dance with Ya” shows our host at home with his wife, seeking tranquility. The philosophy that Judah slowly forged by the fire of his trials is laid out on the battered but bliss-beaming “Alright (frick it!)”: “No matter how bad all this gets, I can’t stop this voice in my head / This voice in my head says, We’re gonna be alright!”
“That chorus really started as a motto between me and my siblings—a message of camaraderie and triumph to carry us through,” says Judah. The extended ring finger in the album art signifies this too—it’s an old Akers family sign meaning, roughly, “frick it.” “With these songs, we want to establish a culture of no matter what you’re going through—depression, family stuff, hard times, whatever—there’s always reason to move forward. At the end of the day, we’re in this together.”
It’s a thing you can actually feel as you work your way through Pep Talks. The group got closer and better as Nate and Brian encouraged Judah to share his truth, and the intentionality of his recovery was in turn reflected by the music. Similarly, once they got to the other side, the Akers too were in a better place: stronger, realer and more honest about who they are, where they’ve been and what’s next. Because the point of sharing all this hard truth isn’t to shame anyone; It’s the opposite really, the idea that being broken and admitting it is unifying—fallibility is our most common trait and if we sing about it from a stage, others will sing along. To that end, if “Quarter- Life Crisis” was a cry for help, album closer “Family / Best is Yet to Come” is an answer. Judah’s mom speaks first, leaving him a teary voicemail after her first listen through Pep Talks. And soon we hear his reply before the song builds to its staggering crescendo: “You’re not alone in this.”