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Struggles with substance abuse are so common in the rock world as to be cliche. Repeats of VH1′s Behind the Music or a skim through any rock biography will attest to how commonplace such excessive and damaging behaviors are among musicians. Equally commonplace (and perhaps, equally cliche) are how those narratives play out, tending to follow one of two storylines: either the musician dies as a victim of their own excess, or they work through their demons to emerge sober, and spend the rest of their careers producing mediocre music embedded with vaguely moral messages.
Los Angeles musician and songwriter Austin Hartley-Leonard is upsetting the latter half of that narrative, having emerged from tougher times not only alive and clean, but primed to embark on a new and particularly fruitful phase of his musical career. “I had been a solo singer-songwriter type around L.A. for about five years, and had made a couple of records. It was going fine, but about two years ago, I sort of had to clean up personally, you know; I got sober, because things were getting a little dark. So when I was coming out of that process and getting sober, I sort of didn’t have any real attachment to the songs that I had written before. They weren’t representations of me anymore. So I completely turned my back on that phase and basically wiped the slate clean.”
Wiping the slate clean in this case meant starting completely fresh–new songs, a new project, a new approach. That process of the new project’s evolution developed rather quickly. “Once I was sober, I called up a producer that I had known for a while [Brad Gordon]. He asked if I had any songs ready, and of course I somewhat sarcastically said ‘Yeah, of course!’ So I only came up with one song at that point called ‘Broken Anchor Blues,’ and it turned out really well. From then on, the project just grew from there: from one song to three songs to five. We put out a few EPs [Broken Anchor volumes I, II, and III], we started playing live, and now we’re at the point of putting out our first full-length LP.”
Hartley-Leonard was working on the project that would become Broken Anchor essentially as a solo artist, a definite shift from the the more familiar band dynamic. Connecting with producer Brad Gordon (whose dossier includes work with The Weepies, The New Fidelity, and Tom McCrae) was central in establishing Broken Anchor’s creative trajectory.
“I think that finding Brad Gordon was essential. Really, my songwriting process hasn’t really changed–it’s just me and a guitar and notepad. But Brad views the songs through a particular lens and layers that really help the songs to develop. Then I started working with a drummer and we bonded over our love of punk rock, X, Husker Du, and stuff like that. That was the first time in a while that I had been able to actually jam out with someone in the same room. He had to leave the project, but that was a big step in terms of Broken Anchor’s evolution and sort of finding our sound.”
In terms of “finding our sound,” Brad Gordon’s role was critical here as well. “Everything that we’ve done has been with Brad. The first thing that we did was just me and him in a room, everything was just the two of us. When a drummer came on board, we started to understand the direction that we were going. The tracks in the middle of the record, like “Canada,” “My Marie,” “Matador,” those were all written with the drummer, and you can kind of tell. But in coming up with those tracks, they all sort of go into Brad’s oven, if that makes sense. There’s something that happens between the two of us. He just sent me a demo the other day, and it just sounds like Broken Anchor. I’m happy that I know that I can kind of come into my sound, which is something that a lot of artists struggle with. That’s been a creative turning point. This is what I sound like, and I’m so fucking happy about that. There’s a groove, there’s definitely like a beat happening in all of these things. I’m pretty psyched.”
Across Fresh Lemonade‘s ten tracks, a definite sound certainly does emerge. This is doubly impressive considering that the album pulls select tracks from the three Broken Anchor EPs, adding a handful of brand new compositions to the mix. Merging material from three discrete projects with new material is the kind of strategy that would seem to invite unevenness across the album. But there’s a very clear consistency on Fresh Lemonade,even as it shifts between lush ballads (“Always”), more intimate and sparse arrangements (“Head is a Hole”), romantic sentimentality (“Stencil Heart,” “Leave the Light On”), and driving rock (“Never Leave Me Alone”).
Hartley-Leonard has also entered a number of licensing agreements that have led to Broken Anchor’s music being featured in Private Practice, The Jersey Shore, Burn Notice, and Teen Mom, among others. Although some may criticize such moves as compromising artistic integrity, Hartley-Leonard has no inkling of such misgivings.
“I have no fucking problem with it whatsoever. I think that’s such a dated notion. I haven’t gotten any flak for it as of yet, though I’m sure that’s inevitable. But this is not a new thing. People forget that Bob Dylan did a Victoria’s Secret commercial, Wilco did a Volkswagen ad – so I’m not breaking the mold by being on television. But if someone came up to me and said ‘Hey man, I like your voice, that was a really great performance, but I can’t support you because you were on Private Practice.’ That to me is someone that doesn’t actually care about music. With the overwhelming amount of competition – if someone wants to pay to use my music you know, unless it’s the NRA or NAMBLA or something that compromises my principles, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m more interested in being able to go on the road than someone being turned off by my association with ABC, or whatever. Anyone who has the faintest, foggiest idea of what it is to be a struggling musician–when money comes in you just get on your knees and thank whoever’s out there that you can continue to do this.”
Another means of funding the project and connecting with fans has been direct fundraising through Pledge Music. Rather than straight fundraising however (as seems to be the current trend), Broken Anchor has taken a slightly different approach. “For us, Pledge Music was a way for us to say, ‘We have this project and this merch,’ and so if people were so inclined they could leave more than the cost of a given item. Pledge Music is leading the charge, because it’s more about direct sales rather than fundraising. You know, everyone has maybe three pledges in them, and then you’re kinda done. After that, I think fans have reached the saturation point. I don’t think we would do it again until we felt like we have something new to offer. They [pledge campaigns] are labor intensive, you have to keep in people’s faces, the line between asking for money and letting people know that product is available gets really blurred.” Even so, Broken Anchor’s Pledge Music has been effective, exceeding the band’s initial goal.
The last few years have marked a major turning point for Austin Hartley-Leonard, both creatively and personally. With the release of Fresh Lemonade imminent, Hartley-Leonard is reflexive about what brought him and Broken Anchor to this point, and enthusiastically bracing himself for the future. “It’s a pretty big moment for me. I think that this is the first step ion a long journey. I’m excited to see who picks up on it, and to see where it takes me.”
Check out the video for “Never Leave Me Alone” below, and visit Broken Anchor’s website to order the debut LP Fresh Lemonade.