Ask Hamilton Leithauser to describe the records that inspired his first solo album, Black Hours, and he'll end up, as many musicians will, reaching for a guitar. "I guess it’s just the sound," he says, strumming a few chords from John Lennon's Mind Games, and a few more from Highway 61 Revisited’s grab bag of major and minor, shuffle, blues and ballad. “It’s like someone singing directly at you. It’s personal and I find it in the details. It’s not complicated...but it’s just so hard to verbalize.” When he began work on Black Hours, Leithauser had begun to wonder whether he’d ever be able to achieve that directness of personal expression himself, at least in the context of rock n’ roll—yet the end results are proof positive. In its orchestrated rhythms, dynamic vocals, and generous production, Black Hours speaks from one booming voice.
After over a decade of writing and performing with his oldest friends as The Walkmen, Leithauser and his bandmates needed a change. “It seemed the only creative direction left, sadly, wasn’t together”. Surprisingly Leithauser found himself turning not to the rock n’ roll of his elders or peers, but to Frank Sinatra’s The September of My Years on repeat. “It’s his slower stuff that I like the most--the self pity and the drama; poor pitiful me--that’s the most fun.” And in the darkest part of February 2013, Leithauser took a warbly, meandering piano recording fellow-Walkmen member Paul Maroon had sent from New Orleans, and began composing the song that would become Black Hours’ opener, “5 AM”. “I wanted to write something that never repeats, that keeps changing,” he says. “The strings, the lyrics, and the melody all came at the exact same time, line-by-line. Each one drove the other forward, and I had no idea where it was going. I didn’t know if it was rock n roll or what...I only knew that it definitely wasn’t rock n roll as I’d come to play it.” It’s an album as passionate and personal and free as the canonical recordings that inspired it, and inaugurates a new chapter in an already remarkable career.
His latest endeavor, a new project with Rostam Batmanglij, will be released later this year. I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is an album of songs Hamilton and Rostam wrote and recorded together between July 2014 and February 2016. Many of these songs seem to take place in a memory of New York’s past, or wading through the waist high waters in a half-submerged New York of the future. Yet what unites them is that they tell stories—I Had A Dream That You Were Mine is an album, a collection of songs yes, but also a collection of narratives.
In the spirit of collaborative albums, not unlike those of David Byrne and Brian Eno, each musician’s individuality remains in tact, while in fact, on this record, both Hamilton’s identity as a singer and Rostam’s as a producer seem to reach new heights.