The Hopeless Optimist: An Interview with Langhorne Slim
After releasing a widely acclaimed and highly anticipated album, The Spirit Moves, Langhorne Slim & the Law spent most of the past year on tour. Slim's birthday is Aug 20 – he’ll be 36. This marks over a decade as an artist and writer of folk, soul, and blues songs that are rooted firmly in the lexicon of the modern folk genre.
“It is surreal when you’ve been doing it for 15 years and you run into people at shows that say they’ve been listening to you since they were in high school – I’m not sure how that happened,” Slim says. “Time goes by. But I still feel as if my work is nowhere close to finished and that I’ve got a lot to accomplish. I’m as hungry now as I ever was, maybe even a little hungrier. To get as deep into this thing as I can while I’m still here.”
Walking down the street in San Francisco, he’s on his cellphone and the street sounds are audible. As a constant rambler who never really settled down (although more recently he’s felt at home in Nashville), he’s a little difficult to catch up with. Admittedly, he’s not necessarily fond of interviews, though quite a few have been published recently.
“Yeah, they’re not my favorite part of what I do,” he says. “I’m grateful that people want to talk to me about what my favorite part of it is. Which is playing music and performing.”
He refers to his band (Malachi Delorenzo, drums, Jeff Ratner, bass, Casey McAllister, keys) as his “musical brothers” who have a tight relationship as creative partners and friends. Recently, on The Spirit Moves, he worked with a co-writer, producer Kenny Siegal, who helped tie together the pieces of music and lyrics on about half of the album’s songs.
“The reason I started working with Kenny was that he produced the record The Way We Move, we fell in love with each other, soul brothers, probably from some kind of past life. We’re able to work together in a way that feels very honest and special. So I was open to giving that a shot … What I want to do is surround myself with people that I love, and that I admire, and that turn me on. You can take that in every way. Those are the types of folks that I want to do the business of love, music, art and existence with. I went with Kenny because I trust him, I love him, and we see each other clearly.”
He adds, “This was a collaboration out of deep respect and love. We’re not expecting to be the biggest folk rock stars in the world and sell a million records. I don’t really care about that. If I ever did, I don’t care about it anymore.”
Langhorne Slim has been writing and touring with The Law for about five years. Before working with this band, as a well-respected solo artist, he says he never felt like he was the most talented person in the room. “I’ve always surrounded myself with people who I felt were musically more talented than me. I hope that I have a talent for words and for melody. I’m not the greatest guitar player or the greatest musician, and never tricked myself into thinking that I was. I have a need to create songs and express myself through art and music, ever since I was a kid.”
In the past year, reviews of The Spirit Moves have been positive (with only The Guardian making a slightly negative remark about the music being “as well-trodden as his battered, beating heart,”) and interviews have focused on songwriting and performing. However, brought up in just about every article is Slim's recent sobriety. The press release that accompanied the album mentioned that this was his first album recorded completely sober, thus opening the floodgates for questions about addiction and recovery.
Still, I felt it was necessary to ask permission to talk about addiction, since it did seem that it was old news at this point. And his answer was, "Of course, but ..." While it’s clear that he doesn’t feel any regret for putting that information out there with the press for the record, and that it was “worth speaking about” that he made his first “clean” album, he does seem to be a little tired of the topic as a distraction from his music. It will now be three years since he made this life-altering change.
And he's not self-righteous about it.
“I’ve lived with addiction for 15 years. I drank every day, did everything else I could. And I got to a point where I thought I was going to die. My physical form, my emotional, my psychological, my spiritual essence – it felt like my existence was soon to be terminated. I decided to make a change … it was the biggest deal that was going on my life. Three years later, I find myself with a different set of joys and a different set of challenges. And you know, life goes on.”
Blues and folk artists have been writing songs to push through the difficulties of getting sober since the late pre-war era. John Lee Hooker, Leadbelly, Sonny Boy Williamson, Memphis Slim, James Taylor, Coco Montoya, John Mayall and Eric Clapton – one could go on and on listing the various artists who have written lyrics and music that confront the demons of addiction. Folk and blues songs have a long tradition as a creative cure for suffering or a clear lens through which one views an otherwise blurry life.
But you won’t find any themes of addiction or recovery in the lyrics of a Langhorne Slim song. Music is his outlet to celebrate life and love, and with reverence, he speaks of creating music with his band as his inspiration to achieve a more "extreme" existence.
“I felt extremely lucky to be in that position, where I’d been playing with the same band for many years, [with] people that know me deeply. I’ve had the same sort of friend group for a long time. The people that I let in, and the people that let me in, we’re pretty close. When I got sober, I was immediately lifted up by that group of people. I was supported and shown a great deal of love, and everything in my life improved. Again, it was 15 years of a downward spiral. There were certain good times as well. It just grew old. So, when I made that switch, instead of going to a job that I don’t like, or to a wife or girlfriend where the romance is kind of lost but we’re still sticking it out, I was greeted with a lot of light and a lot of love. And certainly that’s a huge part of making any big life change.”
Just as in older blues traditions, songwriting was a form of recovery for a lot of things in his life. “If I didn’t have music as an outlet, if I was just having to struggle to get out of bed, it would have been a lot harder.”
His frequent comments on faith and hope, and the spiritual themes on his records, are not necessarily religious, though it may seem he uses similar language to describe transformation and salvation. “I’ve always been this way. I was raised a Jewish boy outside of Philadelphia, I’m totally down with Jesus, but no I’m not talking about religion. I’m talking about a life force, energy, and that kind of thing.”
And while many people thought that the song “Changes” from The Spirit Moves may have been about his sobriety, he claims that was far from his mind at the time he wrote the song. The lyrics can apply to any kind of changes that one goes through in life – falling in love, breaking up, moving on from the old into the new.
If anything, Langhorne Slim is optimistic and focused on moving forward.
“I mean, there’s a darker side to us all,” he says. “I’m still riddled with fear and doubt sometimes. Music helps me with that, serves that truth, and it exposes that. It brings me the greatest joy, but at times the greatest challenges. If I seem optimistic, it’s because I’m a hopeless optimist and I am full of faith and hope. And I think that keeps me going and trying to challenge myself. I don’t think I’ve gotten closest to where I want to go. I hope that my best writing, my best work, and my best shows are ahead of me.”