It took a little longer for Hamilton Leithauser to find his way to The Loves Of Your Life. After the prolific burst the former Walkmen singer enjoyed following the dissolution of his old band in 2013, it’s now been four years since we heard from him. By Leithauser’s own estimation, figuring out what the album was supposed to be required some time. Now that his instantly recognizable voice is booming out across 11 new songs, it feels like the long-awaited return of an old friend.
That feeling is perhaps inevitable given that Leithauser, now in his early 40s, has become something of an indie-era journeyman with a beloved body of work to his name. But it also turns out to be a perfect tone for The Loves Of Your Life. After struggling to find inspiration, Leithauser started to be struck by random moments and random characters crossing his path — strangers who started conversations, old friends suddenly stumbling into him. It unlocked a new approach for him, an album zoned in on specific character sketches, a tribute to the way people move in and out of our lives.
The way Leithauser made the album almost mirrors the nature of its stories — moving through something alone, then interacting with others at the smallest yet most important moments. A lot of the music dates back to when he was working on his last album, 2016’s I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, his collaboration with Rostam. He messed around by himself in his home studio, delving into drumming for the first time and playing most everything else you hear on the album.
But the outside contributions were crucial: his former bandmate Paul Maroon giving him the beginnings of a couple songs that helped unlock the album, the vocals of his wife and daughters lending further nuance to the songs therein, his daughters’ former preschool teacher Lacrisha Brown singing throughout as well. “I try to keep it all in the family, a close gang,” he explains. The Loves Of Your Life, then, has strains of the familiar and the intimate, the comfort of family and close-knit friends. But that intimacy is in tension with the album’s focus on the people who drift out, who we lose sight of as they pass by. Throughout, Leithauser’s trying to understand the story of those characters.
Ahead of The Loves Of Your Life’s arrival today, Leithauser and I caught up on the phone. Speaking from quarantine in DC, he walked me through the background and origins of the album and its approach, as well as the stories behind each song. Now that you can hear the album in full for yourself, maybe the stories will help light up the web of faces and scenes Leithauser’s collected this time around.
1. “The Garbage Men”
STEREOGUM: The whole album is made up of stories about strangers and friends. The fact that this is the entire album, was that a different form of writing for you?
HAMILTON LEITHAUSER: Yes, it was. The reason it turned out that way was because I had thought about it differently from the get-go. Several years ago, I was just making music on my own — actually, while I was working on my record with Rostam. I was working in my house in this shitty little studio I had in Dumbo, just trying to put some songs together.
I was having pretty good luck with the music, I wrote a lot of little parts I liked. It felt like it was going to work. After a while I had a big collection of finished tracks I really liked, but I didn’t have any singing on them. That was different for me, because I had always written the singing right when I wrote the music. It had always been this married thing. I knew I wanted to sing on this big collection of music, I knew I didn’t want it to be soundtrack music, or I knew I didn’t want to approach a singer and give it to them. But I was just having a lot of trouble starting singing, and I didn’t really know why.
Actually, I still don’t know why. But I got to the point where anything I tried sorta had this been-there-done-that, tired… I just didn’t like the sound of my own voice. I started thinking, maybe I’ve just done it too much. Maybe I made some big mistake and missed my opportunity to write the singing when I wrote the music. It was several years of that.
A couple years later I was riding the cross-sound ferry in Long Island, and I met this odd character, and I decided to write a song about him. But instead of writing the melodies and lyrics as they were, I just wrote down everything I remembered about the conversation with this guy, and I started writing down things I thought would be kinda funny if they were true about this guy. I wrote it all out in a paragraph, and I thought it was funny and interesting enough that I wanted to work on it. I set it to some music I had, and the first one didn’t work out. But the second one I had was a guitar line from [the Walkmen’s] Paul Maroon.
So I sang on that, and then I rearranged the whole song and I started wanting to sing the lines, like, this’d be fun if I give this line my full blast, this’d be fun if I give this line a softer touch. All the sudden I wanted to sing again, and it started to sound good again, and that’s where it started. That one worked out, just getting a separate set of lyrics and a separate piece of music, figuring out what personality worked and the meeting of the two.
STEREOGUM: How did that transition into you writing about friends of yours?
LEITHAUSER: A couple weeks later, I was walking down the street on 9th Avenue and I ran into this old friend of mine I hadn’t seen in like, 10 years. He looked like he was doing well, he was with his new girlfriend or something, but when I saw him he also looked like he’d had four martini lunches. It was so fun to see him and remember all our fun times in our early 20s, all the memories came flooding back. So then I started thinking it’d be really fun and maybe a little dangerous to write a song about someone I know, instead of some stranger I just met and made things up about. It felt like kind of an appealing, slightly curious, maybe slightly touchy subject.
I went home and I wrote the words to “The Old King” that day about that guy, because as fun as he was there was always a darkness around him. I wrote all the lyrics that day and I tried to put them on this kind of slow Pogues ballad I had written and I did it all and listened back and the personality of the song was just miserable. I didn’t ever want to hear it again. But I knew that I liked the lyrics, and I actually liked the music — it was just the meeting, the personality together, was just, dude, just miserable. So I took that and found another piano line Paul Maroon had written, and I got my daughters to sing “Whatever happens/ Know you can love me,” this kind of sweet, haunting background.
At that point I had one song about a stranger and one song about someone I knew, and that’s when it clicked for me: I really like writing about people, and trying to create a whole personality with a marriage of my separate lyrics and my separate music.
So that takes us to “The Garbage Men,” because that song is the third one I worked on with Paul. I had written out a whole sheet about a friend of mine who I miss, who moved out of New York, and I thought it’d be fun if he came back and we could do it like we used to in the old days. I found this horn sample Paul had made and I played the drums on it and I was really psyched about it. Then I had tons of lyrics, very specific things, but you can only keep so much. To someone else, that’s the opening track. And I would like to say this record is about specific people which it very much is, but that one doesn’t — I don’t think you’re going to get as much of a portrait in that song. But I just loved that one.
STEREOGUM: I feel like I’ve known my share of Isabellas…
LEITHAUSER: Right, if you live in New York you’re going to know someone like that.
STEREOGUM: I mean, I went to NYU, so.
LEITHAUSER: There you go, so did I.
STEREOGUM: So is this one of the strangers or one of the friends?
LEITHAUSER: This is a friend. This is the one that’s a little funny. You know, I’m rooting for everybody. The people I know and the people I don’t, anybody I wrote about I’m rooting for them. But the thing you find interesting is not necessarily going to be the side they want to put forward. It’s not like what they put on their own Instagram page. It’s not the saintliness that you’re going to find that interesting, to be honest. That song, I wrote a lot out and I sang what I sang.
It’s a song, I’m not writing an article — I don’t have to be married to the truth. I can embellish where I want. To me, it is more fun to keep as close to the truth as possible. I tried to get the details that’d be more colorful, but I have to sing a verse a couple times and I have to sing a chorus a couple times, so it’s going to limit the amount of information that’s in the lyrics. I don’t know, if someone didn’t know the backstory and I hadn’t told them, maybe they’d get it, maybe not.
STEREOGUM: You allude to this in the teaser for “Here They Come” as well, but it’s a different kind of game putting out the biographical details of friends. Especially the more “colorful” aspects. With songs you have that much more room to bend what is fact and fiction, even as you’re explaining it to people. As you got deeper into this, was there a conscious back and forth for yourself, like locating where you needed to rein it in?
LEITHAUSER: That’s why I wrote that teaser with Ethan [Hawke] about “Here They Come,” which is about that fear — that somebody thinks it’s about them and they get really pissed off. I sort of worried about that more than — it hasn’t really happened. I don’t want to embarrass anybody, I also don’t want to be a creep that’s like, you know, keeping tabs on everybody. I thought it was more like a general compliment. There’s nothing that’s really that serious. I’m not getting into anyone’s real nasty dark side. It had seemed like it was a problem I would’ve said I didn’t want to keep going. To me it’s more fun. And not to mention, you can change enough details that hopefully it’s not going to be an issue either way.
3. “Here They Come”
STEREOGUM: For “Isabella,” you had a video with Maggie Rogers. Is she a friend of yours? Did you write the sketch together?
LEITHAUSER: Yeah, she’s a friend. I came up with the whole idea.
STEREOGUM: And for “Here They Come” you had Ethan Hawke.
LEITHAUSER: I’ve known him for several years now, we just met through mutual friends.
STEREOGUM: How did he respond when you pitched him like, “I want to do this video where you ruthlessly beat me up at the Carlyle”?
LEITHAUSER: I mean, I didn’t have to ask him twice. [Laughs] He thought it was hilarious, he loved the idea. I was like, “All you gotta do is get really pissed off and break a chair over my head,” and he was like, “I’ll be there, what time?”
STEREOGUM: You know, I deal with a lot of album promotion cycles. The idea that a rollout starts with someone getting a chair broken over their head by Ethan Hawke…
LEITHAUSER: [Laughs] It struck me one day, like, that’s it. Like when you get a good song idea.
STEREOGUM: So the story behind “Here They Come” was about a friend who’s always running from his problems…
LEITHAUSER: Right, that’s the specific thing, I had a friend who used to go to a theater for an 11AM show, so when that show was over he would sneak into whatever was playing next door, and then sneak into the next. All day long. The song is about the specific moment the lights are coming on in one of the shows and him deciding like, “OK, do I hit another show or do I go out into the world and start facing my problems?” It’s kind of a metaphor for anyone who’s running… the moment you start to realize like, “Shit, am I going to have to deal with this or can I dodge it?”
STEREOGUM: The image of hiding in movie theaters feels so distinctly New York to me.
LEITHAUSER: I think I know a lot of people who have.
STEREOGUM: I guess it’s weirdly one of the only total solaces you can get here.
LEITHAUSER: That’s probably why I came up with that idea. You know, it’s two hours, it’s going to be dark… in my image, it’s the days before cellphones. So you’re really just hanging out on your own.
4. “Cross-Sound Ferry (Walk-On Ticket)”
STEREOGUM: Once the concept of the album started to germinate for you, what was the timeline? Did it then take another year to collect the characters that spoke to you for these songs?
LEITHAUSER: It’s always an unconscious funny thing. For instance, the “Cross-Sound Ferry” guy — when I met that guy, it wasn’t a particularly interesting conversation. It wasn’t a particularly interesting moment. Me and my daughters were at the snack bar, and he was sitting at the adult bar and he just wanted to talk to somebody. Like a week later it just crossed my mind: That was a 9AM ferry. And he didn’t get on when we got on. And it’s a 75-minute trip across the water. So that guy probably got on at like 7AM over in New London, Connecticut. And then I thought well, shit, maybe he got on the 5AM, and he’s just soaking up the vibe riding back and forth. And then I thought, oh, shit, maybe he got on two weeks ago.
He was sitting at the bar having a cocktail, but wasn’t causing a scene. It was just a funny thought. It was sort of a small moment and nothing really wild happened, but I thought it might be fun to turn it into a passionate balls-to-the-walls rocker and capture whatever fire’s in this guy’s skull that’s keeping him away from his family or from home. Maybe beneath that surface there’s a long, complicated story. So I wrote down all these things he was talking about and then I tried to imagine this dude, like something haunting this guy. Just like there’s something haunting the guy in “The Old King” — he was always very successful and very wealthy and affable, everybody liked this guy so much, but there was always a darkness to wherever he went. Just kind of complicated.
STEREOGUM: There are a lot of New York area references across the album, from specific street names to Long Island in this song. For 20 or more years, you’ve been a New York artist — going back to those early Walkmen days in that whole early ’00s scene. Were there new ways you found yourself being inspired by the city as you were writing these character sketches? Or did you kind of have to go looking for those stories again?
LEITHAUSER: I’ve been there for more than half of my life, so if I’m going to be writing about biographical stuff a lot of it is going to be around that area. That’s just how it is writing songs. You sit down with a guitar — like I have for, I don’t know, 30 years — you have to find a new way to play. And if something goes right, you can figure out some little angle and suddenly it doesn’t sound like you’re strumming the same chord away. It sounds like there’s a reason, you’re going somewhere. With the lyrics… I always had in the back of my head like, ‘I’ll get to the singing, that’s my wheelhouse.” It took walking away from it for many months to find a new way to go about it.
That was when I sang “Cross-Sound Ferry.” It was just that moment of, yeah, I want to tell a story, and I can sing. But I don’t have my melody and verse planned out as if it was a Walkmen song. I had to get this story I really liked and try to fit it in. it’s sort of a macro way of doing, creating a personality from these separate pieces. And not one time did the first go work out, there wasn’t a single a time where the song and story worked the first time. It’s just about trying to find a new way of looking at it.
So the thing about New York… I couldn’t consciously say, “Oh, I’m going to write a song set in New York.” Where am I going to start, Statue Of Liberty? Like, what? There’s no angle. You come back to it because you think, “I want to write a song about my friend and I just saw him on the street and he was such in a great mood and he reminded me of all the good times and, wow, wasn’t there always this weird cloud over him all the time?” And that takes place in the East Village, even though I don’t think I reference it that much in that song. Whether or not some street name or some location or some detail about New York — like hiding out in a movie theater, which is something I do think a lot of young people could probably relate to — that’s where that comes from.
5. “Don’t Check The Score”
STEREOGUM: Well, speaking of old New York characters. The backstory behind this is so funny to me, the image of two kids working at the Met and spending their time day trading.
LEITHAUSER: [Laughs] Yeah, we had a dial-up modem, and there was only one computer hooked up so if you were going to do it — everyone else was sort of keeping an eye on what you were doing, especially if you were the two scrubs. You had to sit down the computer and dial up the thing and it’d be making all that noise and stuff. That’s where the idea of the name of the song came from, “Don’t Check The Score,” which is a sports reference because it’s a little bit more noble than a TradeKing reference.
STEREOGUM: When you talk about these old characters coming in and out of your life, was this a close friend at the time, or just some guy you worked with and were thinking about 20 years later?
LEITHAUSER: Actually, the song is not about the guy — the story of the guy I used to trade stocks with, that’s just where I came up with the title. The song is about a much older friend who I hadn’t seen in a very long time. The point of the song is sort of like, “I’m still rooting for you.” Maybe we didn’t end it on the greatest terms but I’m still rooting for you.
STEREOGUM: In most of these cases so far, it sounds like most of these are about friends who have drifted out, or who aren’t a part of your life anymore, or people with whom there was some unresolved or strange parting. Did that wind up being a more consistent inspiration than friends who are still in your life and around town?
LEITHAUSER: Yeah, without a doubt. It’s easy to get a little nostalgic, it’s easy to romanticize somebody in the past. Maybe it was already close enough writing about someone I knew in real life, let alone somebody I’m going to see tomorrow morning. That might get into the dark side of it. Singing about something that didn’t go great is different than commenting on somebody’s personality and judging it or something, which I would feel like that’s more… I would be worried about that.
6. “Til Your Ship Comes In”
STEREOGUM: You played almost every instrument by yourself, and you were saying a lot of this actually dates back to the same time period as I Had A Dream That You Were Mine. My initial question was going to be why you decided to go totally solo this time, but it kind of sounds like it emerged from this same general era.
LEITHAUSER: Yeahhh — the music especially would’ve started when I bought my drumset and I built my little studio in my house. I guess… I didn’t know it was going to go that way. I didn’t have a plan. I didn’t know I was going to be writing about specific people when I started this. I didn’t even know I was making a record. It’s just one of those things, you just start making songs. Whenever you try to make a plan, first of all, it never works out, and second of all, you end up sort of pigeonholing yourself. Like, “I’m going to try to make orchestrated music,” “I’m going to make short songs.” It’s already hard enough, and if you… plans don’t work out for me.
So I sat down and played the drums and I liked this part, and I sat down at the guitar and I liked this part. I got a lot better at recording and playing myself than in the past, and that to me was really fun, being able to make it sound a lot better than I used to.
Eventually, when I started having the subject matter — I mean, you get totally lost. When I had 12 sets of music and zero sets of words, and I just have them sitting there, and I have mortgages to pay and I have a day-to-day life and everyone else has a job and stuff, you think, “What am I doing with my time? This is such a waste of time. I’m not bettering the world, why am I doing this?” It’s not until you get stuff existing… you feel like you’re on borrowed time, when is it all going to fall apart? Every record I’ve ever done has had that feeling.
STEREOGUM: So what was the character sketch of this one?
LEITHAUSER: This is very similar to “Don’t Check The Score,” although it’s a different person. This is a song about a person who had a lot of troubles when they were younger, and I’m still rooting for ya. It’s actually why I put them next to each other on the record. I thought it ended side one and started side two with the same idea, of, “I haven’t seen you in a while, things weren’t that great, but I’m there for you.”
7. “The Stars Of Tomorrow”
LEITHAUSER: This has a very specific story behind it. This might be the one where the most facts came through. I was sitting on the beach one afternoon in Long Island with my daughters playing in the sand and this Polish woman pulled up in the empty parking lot and came up and sat down right next to me on this bench. There were pleeeenty of benches, and she just came and sat right next to me, and told me her life story. Skipped through so much information, like a 35-minute thing. By the end of it my daughters were right there sort of wide-eyed listening to this crazy tale.
A lot of her facts just did not add up and it seemed like the story was… a lot of it was a stretch or the truth was getting mixed up or whatever. But she was leaving her husband and they had this huge fight. She was driving a Chevy Silverado that was parked right behind us and she kept saying, “I’m taking this Ford, I’m taking this Ford.” I wanted to be like, “I don’t want to burst your bubble but… that’s a Chevy.” That was the first fact that struck me as a little bit funny, she was just hammering it home and it was completely wrong. I wanted to tell that story as best I could.
STEREOGUM: The balance of the album skews towards old friends more so than strangers.
LEITHAUSER: Yeah, it did in the end, which is funny since it started with the strangers.
STEREOGUM: That’s what’s kind of curious to me: After years of touring and spending time in other cities, you must have countless stories like this, so many weird encounters you could’ve gotten these songs out of.
LEITHAUSER: Without a doubt. I had so many stories about going around and meeting crazy people and funny stuff happening. Just an infinite amount of things. But to get an album worked out is different.
8. “Wack Jack”
LEITHAUSER: This is an unpleasant breakup song, that’s what it boils down to. It’s the idea of, somebody left you and you’re not happy about it and it didn’t end so well. I don’t really want to write a totally nasty-sounding song, but this does have some nasty flavor to it.
STEREOGUM: Is this still inhabiting somebody else’s perspective or is this remembering an old perspective of yours?
LEITHAUSER: … This might be remembering an old perspective of mine. [Laughs] Well, it’s all subjective right? Who you choose to write about, what you choose to include… and the fact that I’m not afraid to embellish on the truth. It’s definitely… my side of the story, right?
STEREOGUM: Another thing I’m wondering about with how long this album took to come together — you mentioned the years spent before finding the inspiration for the lyrics and vocals. But exactly how long ago did that part happen?
LEITHAUSER: I thought I was closing in on an idea around the end of 2018. But before that I would’ve thought, “Oh, I have so much music I just have to get in the shed and do my thing and I’ll knock it out.” I would say most of 2018 was realizing that was actually not going to happen and I had a lot more work to do with singing parts. So from the beginning of 2019, that’s when I realized what I wanted to do.
9. “Stars & Rats”
LEITHAUSER: This is about walking down the street in New York and hearing my friend’s voice, an old song coming out of a bar, and thinking about the old days and missing that old friend. You know when you hear a song you haven’t heard in so long? It just brings back a lot of memories.
STEREOGUM: Is that why the word “rat” is in the title?
LEITHAUSER: Welllll… no. Actually, I was debating calling the record Stars & Rats, that was my first thought. But when I suggested it to my wife and some friends they said, “You know, there’s enough rats in your life.” [Laughs]
STEREOGUM: I mean, it did seem like it had to be somewhat conscious.
LEITHAUSER: Well, I knew it was there. But, no, it’s about walking the street at night and there’s stars in the sky and there’s rats on the sidewalk.
STEREOGUM: Fair enough. I guess in any New Yorker’s life there are a lot of rats. What was the song you heard coming from the bar?
LEITHAUSER: I don’t want to get into that. That was one deal I made with myself — I’m not going to say [exactly who the songs are about]. I don’t want anyone to take it the wrong way and break a chair over my head.
STEREOGUM: With this one, you’re talking about remembering these old days in New York, presumably slightly wilder times. Are you missing that moment in the New York music scene? It seems like otherwise your life would be pretty settled and contented.
LEITHAUSER: It’s easy to get nostalgic, it’s easy to miss the old days. All of my friends did leave New York, which… sucks. It’s amazing how many bands — I know, honestly, four people left in New York from my sort of rock and roll world, and everyone else lives in LA or Nashville or something like that. It sucks. I have a whole new group of friends that I love, and I’m not leaving New York — unless I get driven out by this virus — but mostly I just wish more people had been able to stay.
10. “The Other Half”
LEITHAUSER: This is close to “Wack Jack,” since that’s a nasty breakup song. This is about a friend, who simply could not get over it. Sitting there in front of the TV, wallowing, waiting, imagining it’s still going on. You want to reach out to your friend and say, “You know what, it’s over, time to move on.”
STEREOGUM: Other songs have inspiration looking towards the past, but “Wack Jack” and “The Other Half” would theoretically take place quite some time ago right?
LEITHAUSER: I guess so. Honestly I don’t even know. I’m always saying to somebody like, “Oh, yeah, that was a year ago,” and they’re like, “That was 15 years ago.” If you told me something happened between 2003 and 2013 I’d have no idea the difference between those years.
STEREOGUM: It was kind of interesting to me that at the same time it was character sketches based on other people, there was this malleability of the chronology. Like it wasn’t just that you documented people you ran into in the past year, but it bled back to some other moments and scenes.
LEITHAUSER: It definitely hearkened back farther than the last couple years. Maybe there’s more drama in things you can dredge up in the past. Like running into my old friend and thinking about the times we used to have 18, 19 years ago. Like, you hadn’t thought about it in 20 years, it just strikes you. It’s almost sad that it’s so long ago, but second of all it’s exciting because you start getting into that mindset remembering what that used to be like. That’s what brought me to the song, it got me worked up. I was really proud of the music on “The Other Half,” because I played everything but then I did get Jon Baptiste to come in and play piano. So when you hear the piano really, really take off, that’s him.
STEREOGUM: I noticed that in the credits, it’s everything attributed to you and then Jon Baptiste suddenly shows up.
LEITHAUSER: Unfortunately the song where he really nailed it and I had this big huge piano intro — I just wasn’t able to finish it and then I realized I didn’t really need it. I was going to make it the first song on the record, and I couldn’t finish it and I got bored of trying and it just wasn’t fitting. I still do have it and I really like the song so I imagine someday I’ll pick it back up.
11. “The Old King”
STEREOGUM: We’ve already been talking about and around this song a lot. Not only was this song the genesis of the project in many ways, but the title also comes from a lyric here. I was thinking about the title The Loves Of Your Life — you could imagine like an old mid-century crooner record full of ballads with that name. But when the lyric appears in the song, it’s rather bleak.
LEITHAUSER: It is, it’s nasty and bleak. It’s kind of the idea of, that’s where I wanted to leave. I didn’t want to hear this drunken drivel anymore. It’s all sort of a metaphor, but it’s why we parted ways. When he became too preaching and dark and weary for my taste when I was 23 or something.
STEREOGUM: There was something that was kind of poetic to me that you have this record of loose ends and loose characters and then it’s named The Loves Of Your Life, like the idea that these random threads are also something you carry closely with you through the years.
LEITHAUSER: I wanted to have a title that captured — it is from one of the bleakest lines on the record, which I did like focusing on, but I wanted to try to reference whatever motivation for each character I was trying to capture. What makes each person tick, what is the fire behind the dude in “Cross-Sound Ferry,” what he cared about in his life, or my friend who can’t get over his relationship in “The Other Half.” Or it’s the thing I think is motivating them.
STEREOGUM: At the same time, the final line of the album is, “Whatever happens/ You know I love you.” By the time you get there, were you trying to be a bit more hopeful at the end?
LEITHAUSER: That line is very sad and happy at the same time, that’s why that song didn’t work when it was a slow ballad. It sounded like somebody was dying or something. I thought putting that sort of triumphant melody and having my girls sing sweetly but sort of hauntingly struck a balance that I wanted there. It is a little bit of a downer, but it gives it the kick.
STEREOGUM: Most of these characters and songs are pretty down-and-out.
LEITHAUSER: That’s what makes it interesting to me, that’s what makes it worth singing. I don’t want to sing about like, the triumph of fucking Eric Trump or something, who had everything handed to him and is a total bore, you know?
STEREOGUM: That’s where I was going with it, though: I thought there was something impactful, or sympathetic, writing about all these damaged characters, but then there’s something vibrant when you combine them all together into this tapestry.
LEITHAUSER: That’s what I was going for.
The Loves Of Your Life is out now on Glassnote. Listen here.