It’s been said before that love is a battlefield, and on his latest album Love Versus, Leeroy Stagger comes well armed. The eleventh studio release by the British Columbia native is also a milestone, marking the first recording made at Stagger’s home studio in southern Alberta. But more significantly, his ever-evolving fusion of roots, rock and pop reaches new heights onLove Versus, resulting in 10 tracks that confirm his status as one of Canada’s best contemporary singer/songwriters.
It’s not that Stagger needed much more validation; after working with acclaimed producers Russell Broom (Sam Roberts) and Steve Berlin (Los Lobos) on his previous two albums, Stagger teamed up with Colin Stewart (Dan Mangan, Black Mountain, Yukon Blonde) to produce Love Versus, and put together a dream band for the project.
The cornerstone was Pete Thomas, longtime drummer forElvis Costello, who came up from L.A. for the sessions, joining guitarist Paul Rigby (Neko Case), keyboardist Geoff Hilhorst(The Deep Dark Woods), and Stagger’s longtime bassist Tyson Maiko. Over the course of three weeks, they christened Stagger’s new studio, and in the process changed his perspective on his art.
“I feel like I’ve been hitting my stride over the past three records, but this one especially feels like I’ve set a new standard, and everything I do now has to live up to it,” Stagger says. “Something happened over the course of making this record, with all of us being at my house, totally immersed in what we were doing. I think you can really hear that in the music.”
It’s not only the music that’s so affecting. Lyrically, Stagger drew from a well of personal conflicted emotions to offer a hopeful guide for survival in the modern world. It’s all there in one of the album’s key tracks, “Little Brother,” written in the aftermath of Stagger’s own brother being involved in a serious car accident. Elsewhere, “I Want It All” takes a broader view, urging us to never become complacent in searching for fulfillment, even though it can never truly be found.
“I was going to call the album Love Versus Hate originally, but I shortened it because the Latin meaning of versus is ‘against,’” he says. “So it made more sense to me to think of the theme as love against everything, essentially. I think the idea with these songs is whether love is enough to conquer the struggle. I’m not a particularly religious person, so I don’t have a lot to fall back on in that regard, apart from love itself.”
Stagger began the process with about 15 songs, from which Stewart isolated a handful he felt had the most potential, while instructing his charge to keep writing. It was a challenge Stagger welcomed, and from that moment he knew he’d picked the right producer. From there emerged songs like “Joe Strummer And Joey Ramone,” a tribute to Stagger’s early days in the Victoria, B.C. punk rock scene, and “Crooked Old World,” featuring guest vocals by Joel Plaskett.
What is most striking about Love Versus overall is the wisdom at the foundation of each track, and indeed, for anyone who has followed Stagger’s career to this point, it should be apparent that this is the album he’s been destined to make. Raised in a blue-collar household, Stagger has followed his own path—for better or worse—since the age of 18, with every step providing musical inspiration. Like his American counterpart Ryan Adams, Stagger’s life has played out on his records, from a wild, reckless youth, to finding his unique voice. Trusting his instincts has been the key, especially as life has continually grown more complicated.
Stagger admits he worked harder than he ever has writing the songs for Love Versus, but his drive was matched by his determination to get his studio finished before the sessions were scheduled to begin. He was banging nails right up to the last minute. “I’d built the room to look like a church, and I had no idea how it was going to sound,” Stagger says. “All the walls are Douglas fir, and I think the record ended up sounding like the space–really warm and big. There’s a youthfulness in the music too that I might have forgotten about.” He adds, “Another reason I was so glad to have this crew there was I’d written the shit out of the songs. I knew they could grasp that, so I’d only have to worry about delivering my parts.”
Since first making his mark on the Canadian independent music scene at the turn of this century, Leeroy Stagger has toured the world, both on his own and with the likes of Steve Earle,Pixies, Modest Mouse and Evan Dando. Among his achievements are winning 102.7 The Peak’s highly competitivePerformance Project in 2015, working with legendary U.S. industry mogul Danny Goldberg, and having his songs appear in such television shows as Grey’s Anatomy and Sons Of Anarchy.
Although Stagger’s sound has most often been tagged Americana, in reality it’s always been much broader than that description might suggest. Learning to ignore the urge to try to fit into any genre has been another crucial change Stagger has made over the last couple of years, and it has paid off magnificently with Love Versus.
“I just go where the songs take me,” he surmises. “I’m not afraid of commercial rock or pop, but my feeling is you have to be clever in writing catchy music while somehow laying out a framework to include intelligent lyrics. Just being able to get this album made in the way it was, and with this incredible group of people, was extremely vindicating.”
After almost two decades of consistent output, Stagger certainly does have the respect of both his peers and Canada’s music industry tastemakers. However, the addition of Love Versus to his (ahem) staggering body of work opens a new chapter, promising to reach many more ears.