Any time a band releases a record, there’s bound to be both excitement and nervousness. But leading up to the release of Pep Talks, Judah Akers of Judah & the Lion was especially antsy. While the band has always been genuine, this record – which delves into divorce, alcoholism, and loss – is their most painful and personal yet. Akers compares it to disparate episodes of a TV show coming out; with the release of Pep Talks on May 3, the full story is out there, and “in the hands of the people that it needs to reach.”
Before the official release, fans were able to hear Pep Talks with Judah & the Lion’s Storytellers Tour. In the weeks leading up to the album’s release, the band traveled throughout the South and Midwest telling the story of the record and giving fans an early listen. As an independent band, they’ve “always thrived off of weird, house show, kind of quirky ideas”; in addition to hearing the record itself, those who attended were able to hear the story of the album, learn about the foundation the band has started, and hear some acoustic songs.
Isabella Polidoro, a fan from Frankfort, IL, traveled to the Columbia, MO show, and says the intimate environment “made everyone feel really appreciated and connected to the band and their music on a whole new level.” Rachel Sinnen, from Saint Paul, MN, was also at the Columbia show, and shares, “I laughed so hard I cried. I danced. I smiled. I felt at home again.” Emilie Rusch, a fan from Wisconsin, took time off work and flew to Charlottesville, VA for the first show of the tour. Seeing the band talk about their stories brought her to tears – “You could tell it was difficult for them, yet they included us like we truly were their family,” she recalls. Rusch cried when hearing “Family / Best Is Yet To Come” but danced to “so many others.” It’s not just the fans who were moved by the Storytellers Tour; being with people as they experience Pep Talks for the first time “has been so amazing, and it’s been such a gift to us as a band.” Getting to see people laugh and cry and dive into the stories has been “super, super rewarding.”
Past Judah & the Lion songs like “Suit and Jacket” and “Going To Mars” embody a positive perspective, encouraging listeners to go after their dreams and be optimistic. However, many songs on Pep Talks are full of pain, detailing Akers’ experience dealing with anxiety and depression for the first and how he’s dealt with those lonely feelings time (“Quarter-Life Crisis,” “i’m ok.”, “Over my head”). The more optimistic and hopeful songs on their past releases were genuine too, because “that was the season of life that we were going through. We dropped out of school, then started pursuing this dream, and then somehow people started liking our music, and then we actually were traveling, and we were playing shows, and then we got on a bus, and it was like – dreams are coming true, and this is unbelievable, even though it’s on a ‘small scale.’ ”
Yet while things were going well with the band, Akers’ family was falling apart, and he struggled internally. The message of Pep Talks is “pain, and the truth of pain, and the truth of anxiety and not being able to sleep, and the truth of family falling apart and the truth of having a mom that’s really struggled with alcoholism and having to deal with a dad that’s kind of run off a little bit, and how do I explain those emotions in still an optimistic way but in a truthful way.” Throughout all of this, he admits that “there were times where I wanted to drown in all of it,” but eventually realized he had the power to choose to either linger in the sadness or “get up and move forward and try to make this message a beautiful message, and define it for myself and not allow other things to define it.” Pep Talks, then, might be their most optimistic and hopeful record to date, because “the reality of the low parts of life were so low for me – [and] that’s where true hope and true optimism is birthed out of. You can be an optimistic person and have the best life, but it’s like – you have no reason not to be optimistic.”
Even in writing about his painful experiences, Akers admits to feeling “spoiled with my life,” and acknowledges that not everyone has had the perspective and blessings he’s had. There was a time in the middle of this season where he felt like he needed to have it all together, but “that’s so BS and so far from the truth.” Being able to speak the truth of his experiences has been freeing, and he hopes that Pep Talks helps spark a conversation about the realities of addiction, anxiety, divorce, and “feeling the most alone you’ve ever felt in your life.”
Loneliness and isolation can be paralyzing, but they don’t have to last forever; on “7000x”, Akers makes the choice to get back up after being knocked down time and time again, and a few tracks later, on “Family / Best Is Yet To Come”, he sings, “I’m not alone /I’m not alone in this.” “I’ve found a lot of hope in not feeling alone,” he says. When going through his difficult season, he felt alone but soon discovered that that was “a fabricated emotion, and I was almost allowing myself to feel that way.” By choosing to feel his brokenness and really lean on other people for the first time in his life, he found hope through his family and the band’s community. With his truth out there on the table, he’s now “more free to engage in life, because I don’t have it all together.”
“Why Did You Run” sees Akers in a particularly lonely moment: he got a call from his mom while she was in jail, so he called his dad, who didn’t pick up. He set out to create “a completely unorthodox demo for Judah & the Lion,” and compiled some electronic loops. Written over the initial demo, the lyrics to the song came quickly. Akers recalls “crying… and dancing at the same time” as he first sang the lyrics in his studio, and initially felt the song was too personal to release. Producer and friend of the band Drew Long added “these super-robotic drums in the chorus”; the resulting track is one that could almost be an EDM banger, but with the banjo and the mandolin, it’s entirely Judah & the Lion. “We didn’t lose that electronic element by adding the folk-y element,” Akers reflects. “It combined in a way that felt really natural for us.”
That constant reinvention is now a part of who Judah & the Lion is. Though they started as “a true-form bluegrass band,” with each release, they’re discovering and blending new elements of their sound (their 2016 sophomore full-length was appropriately titled Folk Hop n’ Roll). This means they’ve gained fans and lost a few others, but Judah & the Lion have promised themselves to “allow ourselves to make mistakes,” and not to sound the exact same on every record. Akers mentions that he’s a fan of Coldplay, who have become “such a profound and prolific band because they don’t care that their last record worked; they’re kind of marching to the beat of their own drum.” He also references a Miles Davis quote – “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself” – a story that rings true with the band, who are “trying to sound more and more like Judah & the Lion – whatever that is” with each record.
Regardless of race, age, or background, everyone has their own story – and every story matters “because you’re human.” But your story – no matter how pain-filled or difficult it is – doesn’t have to define who you are. Akers stresses that “you get to define the story…. Choosing and getting to define yourself is your fundamental right as a human being.” Perhaps the way we define ourselves doesn’t have to be our demons, but how we’ve had the strength to overcome things like addiction, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. “I think that’s the beauty of what we have to do in this human life,” Akers concludes. “So we’re trying to choose hope in the midst of something that has been painful.”
Pep Talks is out now; buy or stream the album here. Judah & the Lion will be going on tour in support of the album this summer and fall. A full list of tour dates and festival performances is below; head to www.JudahandtheLion.com/events for tickets and more info.