Sitting centerstage at the crowded Starbucks within Rockefeller Center, Judah & the Lion are relaxed. Perhaps it’s because they’re used to being centerstage at stadiums, sold out venues, and sun-soaked festival sets. While this is all true, the band’s frontman Judah Akers promises me that they don’t see themselves as “vets” just yet.
The three-piece, genre-bending outfit made a name for themselves with their anthemic sound and connective lyrics back in 2016 through their breakout second album, Folk Hop N’Roll. The album (along with its deluxe version released in 2017) was infectious and attracted a fan base of dedicated listeners who were looking for a voice to validate their own struggles and a sound to really rock out to.
“We’ve always been going through stuff but I think our songs in the past focused on the positive side of things,” banjo player Nate Zuercher says of the band’s last few records. On their newest album Pep Talks, the guys went in a different direction. “I’m glad we have this package of songs now that gives a full snapshot of everything from the struggle to the hope. It gives a better perspective,” Zuercher adds of their latest music.
Drawing from Akers’s very personal struggles with his parent’s divorce, the band’s frontman wrote an album based on pain, self-awareness, and finding hope in those darker moments. While Pep Talks was spearheaded by Akers’s words, during the process of writing and recording, the band as a whole realized there is a much bigger message behind the strength of this music. “Through this record, I became much more empathetic towards people and what people are naturally going through in life,” Akers admits.
“We all support Judah and love his family. When he was ready to write down what he was going through, we knew it was the right decision,” Zuercher says of the album’s lyrics. “We’re so grateful that Judah would be vulnerable to this level that we can all identify with. I’ve needed those words so much this year myself.”
With heart-sinking songs like “pictures” featuring Kacey Musgraves and more uptempo bangers like “Don’t Mess With My Mama,” Pep Talks truly celebrates the process of finding yourself in times of weakness. “I think that by having the more somber moments lyrically, makes the hopeful moments even more epic,” mandolin player Brian Macdonald says of the album’s highs and lows.
Akers admits that there was some hesitation ahead of releasing such vulnerable music. “In a lot of ways I thought this story didn’t deserve to be told. A lot of people have had way worse situations than having a parent who is an alcoholic and a dad running off. But, to have the freedom of being able to have your own story is important,” he says.
Despite any hesitation, Akers’s two bandmates speak so candidly and proudly about their frontman’s journey that it is crystal clear why their supportive energy is translated so effortlessly to their loyal listeners. “Just in the way that this music has unified our fans, it has also unified us as individuals and what I’ve seen is that when we are honest with them, it allows them to be honest with us,” Macdonald decides.
With self-discovery and self-acceptance shining through this album, Akers says he has found that there is truly a level of solidarity in struggle. Knowing that someone else has felt what you’ve felt can be comforting and liberating. It can shift you to a new headspace which is what Judah & the Lion strives to do during every single live show, which later that night, would be performing “Over my head” on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
With their biggest headlining tour approaching later this year, and a new music video for “Don’t Mess With My Mama” featuring each of the guy’s moms, Judah & the Lion might not see themselves as vets, but they are definitely a type of hero to their community of fans.