We’re heading to Boston for the next stop on the Dr. Martens Presents Tour. Singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Ted Leo, is performing a free set at Dr. Martens Boston on October 5th. Leo has performed several times for us over the past few years; his most recent performance was back in 2016 at Dr. Martens Chicago State St. for our 40 Years of Punk party. Since then, Leo released “The Hanged Man,” an entirely crowdfunded album, and his first record in 7 years. We spoke to him about his impassioned album, musical activism, and making an album, the untraditional way. Read the interview below and check out upcoming shows on the Dr. Martens Presents Tour, here.
This new album is personal. While a lot of your work has been heavy or intense emotionally, it hasn’t always been pointed inward. How’d you get the courage to go there?
I think there’s always been a balance between inward and outward on my records. I don’t really draw a stark line between writing about facts and writing about the feelings they engender, you know? They inform each other and how we interpret them, how we live our lives, what affects us, what we can affect, etc. That said, there’s definitely stuff on this record that’s more specifically inward-focused, but I’d hesitate to ascribe any great courage to it – it’s just the way it happened – it’s just what I wound up needing to write about. It’s been rare that my narrator has been so specifically “me,” but I still hope there’s enough there for people to take something of their own away.
This album was crowdfunded. Were you surprised by the reaction and support? Would you do it again?
Oh hell yes, I was surprised! It was truly an amazing outpouring of support. I mean, I was nervous about whether it was going to fund at all, not to mention what people would think of me going the Kickstarter route. When it funded in the first day, and people were just so enthusiastic about not only the fact that new music was coming, but that I was going directly to fans and bringing them in as part of the process, it just felt huge and uplifting for me.
It’s been a ton of work pulling it all together, but I’m honestly still buoyed through it by the energy from that 30-day Kickstarter campaign. Would I do it again? I think I probably would. I know, from my decades of work in the world of music, that I would not have been able to make this album as beautiful as it is or to tour with the expanded band that’s been helping me flesh it out live if I’d have done it the traditional way. Having people put their trust in me and pledge up front for this enabled us to really make a cool thing, and put it out into the world in what feels to me like the “right” way.
Where do you think kids can find the kind of musical activism found in the folk music of the 50s and 60s, like Pete Seeger or Bob Dylan, or even in the 30s like Woody Guthrie? Would you consider yourself an activist?
Well… if you want Pete Seeger, Pete Seeger records are out there, and they remain massively relevant and inspiring; but if you want something contemporary, it’s all around us. Go to shows, read zines, search online, just listen to music; there are so many artists engaging with politics and activism in and around their work. I see and play with them all the time, from punk bands like Downtown Boys and S-21, to hip-hop artists like Jean Grae and Open Mike Eagle, to bigger bands like Pearl Jam (who are still out there banging the drum for good causes), activism in music is all around us. If you’re looking for it, you’ll find it. And as far as I’m concerned, my records are also out there, and I’m also still making them. I treat the idea of being an activist with too much respect for the amount of work that gets done to call myself one, but as an artist, I do try to remain engaged with activism and speak out on subjects and aid causes that I think are important. I hope that comes through.