We hear it over and over again–one of the truest measures of a band's talent is its level of genre transcendence. Remaining undefinable, out of the box, and in a perpetual state of change song after song, record after record. That's precisely the core attribute of Judah & The Lion, the Nashville-bred band that's been described as rock, folk, hip hop, Southern Gospel, country, alternative, bluegrass, and the list goes on. Oh, and did we mention there's an electric mandolin involved?
The four-piece transitioned with graceful ease from their folk-centric Kids These Days album to the experimental-inspired Folk Hop N' Roll– yes, the title says it all. After wrapping up a support run of Ones To Watch alumni Twenty One Pilots in March, the boys immediately jet off to their first-ever headlining Going To Mars Tour– find details for both here.
In the midst of all the madness, we caught up with Judah & The Lion to discuss genre ambiguity, redefining success, and ever-changing music as a reflection of self–read more below.
Ones To Watch: Back to the beginning, how did the original band get together and what has changed since you added a fourth member?
Nate: It's funny the timing of that question because Judah, Brian, and I actually met five years ago yesterday. We got together for lunch at Belmont University where we went to school in Nashville.
Ones To Watch: Happy anniversary!
Nate: Yeah, we had cake.
Ones To Watch: I love it.
Nate: But Judah had written some songs, kind of wanted to see what they sounded like with folk instruments. So I brought Brian along, played mandolin, and I was doing banjo and so the three of us got together, hit it off really well, just kind of realized this is something very special and different than any other jam session we'd go to at campus because it's super normal in Nashville.
Then we had our first show six months later, a showcase put on at Belmont by students, and we wanted a drummer so we invited Spencer along. And now he's been a part of everything we've done since, but didn't officially get added as a member until last year because he wanted to finish school.
But I think a lot has changed since we started–we started as a very folk-heavy band. And then just realized that we all like to listen to other kinds of music and play other things. Like I grew up playing punk and metal music, and guitar, and bluegrass came later, and Brian's all over the place with the different stuff he's doing as well. So rather than just play what people expect us to just because we have folk instruments, we tried to figure out how to experiment more.
Ones To Watch: Yeah, and that was clearly the case on your most recent album, Folk Hop N' Roll. How did that process work?
Spencer: With this album there's a lot of more layering, and we wanted to start from a different perspective and push ourselves creatively. So Judah would want to come up with a melody over a beat that I would make on a drum machine. Also we've realized the different influences we have from all the stuff we listen and from traveling around, and we just wanted to be as honest with ourselves as possible.
Ones To Watch: So you're going to continue adding different elements as you release more music?
Judah: I think it's always been our plan as a band– with each record, with each song that we record or write, to become more who we are as people. Just like as you grow into discovering more about yourself as you get older, discovering strengths or weaknesses. You're becoming better at being you; I think that's the goal of the band, to not be limited by the instruments we play. If it sounds the same, then that's cool too. But I think the idea is to not allow anything to box us into this thing. We just want to be Judah and the Lion.
Ones To Watch: Right, and I kind of got that from the album title–poking fun at genre classifications.
Judah: Yeah, because we would always get asked, "What's your genre?" and we're like…
Ones To Watch: Right. Worst question ever.
Judah: Alternative? But alternative isn't even an answer. It's like everything and anything.
Ones To Watch: Were you surprised at the reaction to this new album?
Judah: It's funny because this was such a big shift in sound from our older songs, and we didn't know if our fans, our old fans who liked the folkier records, would like it. Initially, some of our old fans didn't really get it.
But really we just kind of fought through all that, and it took until about
the sixth month for it to really reach a newer audience that did
understand it, and then our older fans had gotten it more. We feel
that in a lot of ways, when you come to a show of ours, it marries all of it–the folk and the rock and roll and the hip hop.
Ones To Watch: What we can expect for when you step onto the stage for your first headlining tour this spring?
Brian: We just like to bring a lot of positive energy and fun, but also reaching some moments of making you think a little bit. We love just dancing and the surprise factor.
Ones To Watch:
Any pre-show pump up rituals?
Brian: If you've seen the movie "Cool Runnings," the cheer that the Jamaican Bobsled team does before every race: "Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, its bobsled time!" So we do that before the shows, but with our own spin on it.
Ones To Watch: What's your spin? Can you reveal?
Brian: "Feel the rhythm, feel the rhyme, get on up, it's ass kicking time!"
Judah: It's a lot more effective when we're yelling it. Just imagine us chanting…
Ones To Watch: Any funny tour antics you've noticed of your bandmates?
Brian: The funny thing that I noticed is everybody has their flaws as a driver. Spencer slams on the breaks, Adam misses turns, Judah takes turns really really fast, and Nate texts.
Judah: And Brian is really really fast. Nate gets left at the gas stations.
Ones To Watch: Anything else? Reveal all the secrets…
Judah: Spencer makes a really mean cup of coffee. Brings out his beans, it's pretty crazy. The daredevil is definitely Brian. Brian will jump off a cliff.
Ones To Watch: Awesome. So is there an ultimate goal for Judah and the Lion?
Nate: You could ask that to us at any point in our career in the future or the past, and we would give you an answer. But just looking back, at one point it was to play a late night show, and we got to do Letterman. And then you get there, and it feels kind of normal. I think we in general we want to reach people with our music and just have fun. Be along for the ride and see where it leads, just connect with people through our music, bring joy and change.
Ones To Watch: Totally.
Nate: I think it's important to remember that you know there's always going to be things that we want to do next, that's one goal and then you have ten more. There's always exciting things on the horizon, but to appreciate today is exciting. We're living the dream currently, and in so many ways we've already made it. We're doing it!
Judah: That's actually what our single is about–redefining success and cutting through the BS and appreciating how amazing it feels when people sing your songs. It makes you feel that you're accepted, all humans want and need.
Ones To Watch:
Judah: Exactly, and just getting past that and finding what's actually important to you. Because we would just be pissed off musicians if we just were to just sell more tickets.
Ones To Watch: Who are some Ones To Watch artists you have an eye on?
Brian: Corey Kilgannon–he's a singer songwriter that we went to school with. He's got it
Judah: I'd have to say, this new artist named Ry-lo. She has really good melodies…she's my wife. [laughs]
Spencer: I'll add Tyson Motsenbocker. He just came out with a record–he lost his mom to cancer a few years ago and before she died, she told him he's going to have stop touring and to fully process the loss. She also told him she thinks he should probably do something stupid. And so after she died, he took a 40-day trip walking up the 1 from San Diego to San Francisco, and he wrote the record on the journey.
Ones To Watch: Great choices! What does it say right here? [points to Judah's tattoo]
Judah: "It is well with my soul." My grandpa's handwriting–it was his favorite hymn growing up, and it turned into mine too. The songwriter who wrote it lost his whole family, then he wrote this song about like finding meaning through it all. He wrote it in two minutes and it's like one of the most influential songs.
Ones To Watch: Beautiful, we'll end it at that. Thanks for coming guys!
Judah & The Lion: Thanks for having us!