Daniel James, the epically mustachioed, raspy-voiced frontman of Austin, Texas-based garage-rock outfit Leopold & His Fiction, compares the band's early work to a beat-to-hell but beloved first car that, despite leaking oil all over the driveway, still got the driver from Point A to Point B.
"I remember my first album, it was awesome, but the windows didn't roll down or whatever the case may be, and then the air conditioning didn't work, so it was just really uncomfortable, but hey, at least it's a vehicle," James says. But with the upcoming release of Leopold & His Fiction's as-yet-untitled album in early 2015, James will finally get the shiny, tricked-out ride he's always wanted.
"It's a really great vehicle and it seems to be a very fast vehicle; I mean, it's supercharged," he says. "I feel like I finally graduated to a point where I was like, 'Man, I can really be proud of this.' It's fine-tuned, it's fast, it's myself, it's literally a perfect representation of who I am, and it's the first time in my life where I've been able to completely tap into that without being fearful if I'm going to make it to the destination or not, so it's a huge step for me as an artist and as a human."
James has traversed a long road to get to this point. Originally from Detroit, he hasn't lived in his home city for 14 years. At age 20, he left the Motor City for California, wanting to "get away from who I am, from who I was," he says, even though the band he founded there, Leopold & His Fiction, would retain echoes of Detroit, especially in their sonic similarities with bluesy acts like The White Stripes.
But after James moved to Texas in 2012, he realized he needed to "embrace where I'm from, the way I came up in Detroit, and I also have to embrace the last 10 years I spent in California," he says. Reconciled with his past and looking forward to the future, while creating this new material, James was able to "push myself harder than I ever have before."
Moving to Texas was only one of two major life changes James would experience at the time. When he began writing the songs for the new album, he was also expecting the birth of his daughter, Ava, in a few months, which heavily influenced the record. "Being under a lot of stress and a lot of pressure" at the thought of becoming a father was "life changing," James says. And "all of a sudden, songs start developing out of that."
Those songs reflected James' expanding worldview. "I'm not writing songs about getting wasted and riding on trains, and women, so much anymore," he says. He found himself "embracing bigger ideas, and whatever those ideas may be, they can apply to anybody—that's the glorious part about them."
Looking back, James laughs about the shakiness of his nerves in regards to having a kid—"At the time, it just seemed like I was in a desperate spot, like, 'Oh, my God, my life, I don't know what to do,'" he says—but he adds that "as any artist should do, we just try to capture a moment, just really, really embrace them, and not run from them, because you're going to get the most genuine-type stuff."
The new album—produced by the Grammy-winning Chris "Frenchie" Smith—"is my favorite," James says. "I think a lot of artists will tell you their most current or their most recent work is their favorite, but I can't say that. There's been some [albums] that we've put out ... because we needed material out there, but this is a new step for me. I got to enjoy the process from the very beginning."
While its release date is still a few months away, you don't need a crystal ball to at least catch a glimpse of what the new album will sound like. Listen to the progression that has happened between Leopold & His Fiction's 2006 loosey-goosey folk-rock debut and the band's latest singles, including the savage blues-rock track "I'm Caving In," released in 2012, and one thing is apparent: This record will feature a Daniel James who's on the attack, expressing the truest creative freedom of his career so far.
"It's funny, because it feels like a first album to me," James says. "It's the first album that I've made where I really have my two feet on the ground."