One of the many great songs on the debut full-length from Ferraby Lionheart, Catch the Brass Ring, is named after Vermont Avenue, one of the major thoroughfares in Lionheart’s home base of Los Angeles. The song reflects the scrappy romanticism that still attracts so many to an often unbearably hot, vapid, earthquake-prone city. So it was fitting that I caught up with Lionheart at a small Mexican restaurant on the corner of Vermont Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. This came the day after I’d seen Lionheart play the swanky Hotel Cafe in the heart of Hollywood. The contradiction between the two settings couldn’t have been more severe. But contradictions are what Lionheart seems to trade in: The joy and dread romantic relationships can bring are reflected in his lyrics; a performer who’s genial and engaging on stage but shy and quiet in person. In our conversation, Lionheart opened up a bit about the blog buzz that’s been building on him for a year now, about his place in the L.A. music scene, and about the appropriate amount of space between an artist and a fan in the MySpace age.
I noticed last night how you have a very friendly stage manner when performing. But I also noticed audience members talking way too much for how small and intimate the Hotel Cafe is. Do you run into that problem a lot? Do you ever get not-so-friendly with the loud people?
No. I’ve definitely encountered those kinds of situations where I’m playing for a chatty audience, especially on a tour where I’m opening up for somebody. It can be challenging to perform under those situations. I usually just try to focus on what I’m doing and perform through it. I think toward the beginning of the performance the other night, people were hanging around and chatting after Fionn (Regan). It was understandable.
You did most, if not all, of your first EP yourself in your apartment, right?
Yeah, I did all of it myself.
How much of what’s on Brass Ring did you lay down yourself in your apartment?
The recording process with the new album was totally different. The EP I recorded myself on a very basic system at home. With the new record, I tracked ninety percent of it at a guy’s garage studio. I had an engineer I was dealing with, which was more professional. And I was bringing in other musicians and gear and stuff. I got out of that studio for certain things. I went up to another studio in Pasadena to record horns and strings. I used my apartment just for the piano on “The Car Maker,” because I wasn’t liking how any of the pianos in the studios were sounding on that song.
Those horns on “Before We’re Dead”: Is that an actual New Orleans brass band?
No, they were local friends of mine who play in a band called Critical Brass.
This is always a tricky question with artists, but I think I’m led to ask it even more for a singer-songwriter: Is any of the lyrical material on Brass Ring about personal relationships you’ve had? I’m thinking especially of “Put Me in Your Play.”
Definitely some of the songs are inspired by personal experiences, and some of them are just stories. “Put Me in Your Play” is one of those that was inspired by something personal.
You’re originally from Los Angeles, but you spent some time in Nashville and Chicago. How much do you think those three very different cities, with their three very different music scenes, play into your sound?
It’s funny because I grew up in Nashville and the music I make these days seems appropriate to that, but I didn’t start playing bluegrass or folk or country until recently. When I lived in Nashville I was into different music, and then in Chicago I was into different music. Maybe there was some old musical history living in me from being in Nashville. I’m definitely inspired by the scene in L.A. There’s a lot of rootsy and organic music going on here.
Do you have any plans to collaborate with other L.A. musicians? Becky Stark of Lavender Diamond and Elvis Perkins, for example, trade in a very similar sound to yours, and that could lead to some interesting collaborations.
I like both of their music a lot but I’ve never thought of collaborating with any of my contemporaries. It’s not that I would be opposed to it. There are some bands here that I really like and there’s a great scene here. I like Willoughby and Charlie Wadhams. They’re all friends of mine. We like to go out and support each other, and we all hang out at the same music clubs. But I’m a bit of a loner when it comes to making music.
You said that Jon Brion inviting you to play at Largo was one of your big breaks. Do you plan on working with Brion on any future recordings?
We’ve never talked about working together. I know him very casually through a friend who gave him my CD, and he liked it enough to know one of the songs. I was a big admirer of his records, and he was familiar enough with the music to ask me up that one night, but it’s never really gone past that.
Tell me about the rock band you were in, Telecast. Why didn’t that project keep happening?
I just lost interest in the music I made with Telecast. It was sort of confined to a format because I had band members who played an instrument, so I felt locked into a particular format. I was growing tired of electric guitars and synths and the whole rock scene.
What was the process like after you and the EP started gaining good attention? Was there any kind of label competition to sign you?
There were a few labels approaching me. I was already in the middle of recording Brass Ring. I had met some guys, and they were enthusiastic about it. The EP was taking off through the Internet and blogs and stuff. Because of that, I would get approached every now and then by different people. That’s how I ended up hooking up with my publicist, which ended up turning into a great relationship. And then a guy at Nettwerk started reaching out to me, and that ended up making a lot of sense.
Is the name of the album to be understood as you kind of talking to yourself, telling yourself to capitalize on the good reception your music has been getting?
It doesn’t really have any meaning that literal. I didn’t know what to call it. I was struggling to find a name. Then we shot the record cover in front of a carousel. My best friend and I were kicking around ideas, and that was one of them. We thought maybe we should just name it Carousel, since I have an affinity for carousels and carnivals. Then off of that the old story of the brass ring kept coming up, and that just became the name.
What are your touring plans for the rest of the year?
We’re in the middle of trying to book fall tours. We don’t have anything confirmed, but we hope to soon.
When you say “we,” do you mean the band that backed you last night?
It’s hard to say if that would be the band I would take out on tour with me. Sometimes I go with a different bass player. And when I go to New York I play with different people.
Again, as a very personal artist who’s out there under just his own name, do things ever get weird with people who are big fans? You seem to be very connected to your fans through MySpace. Do any fans ever overplay that feeling of closeness into creepiness territory?
I think that’s pretty common no matter what kind of band you’re in. Even in my last band, there were a couple of people who got really obsessive. Even though the new material is more personal, I’ve never felt uncomfortable. It’s understandable to feel really connected to the music.