Analogue Music | Joel Levi

Joel Levi

By Matt Conner

Joel Levi has learned what most musicians who move to Nashville inevitably learn at some point: the destination is part of the journey.

Moving to Music City is often viewed with rose-colored glasses, a musical Oz where success awaits those who arrive with their talent and hard case in tow. The reality, instead, is the magic of the city works primarily for those who continue to work as hard as ever at their craft.

Levi said he's learned this the hard way, as original band members moved away one by one even as he bought a house, took a day job and established a family. Life gets in the way of music, which was supposed to constitute life in the first place.

Nashville has a way of sifting through the pretenders, but Levi has come out the other side better for it, both personally and professionally. The latter is readily apparent on his new self-titled release, an Americana treat from beginning to end.

Levi's always possessed the rarest of melodic sensibilities, and now he's learned to channel vulnerable and authentic stories through his songcraft. It's his best work yet which means Nashville might just be for him what he always hoped it would.

Analogue: I know you're originally from Indiana. Was the belief that if you want to make music, you gotta move to Nashville?

Joel Levi: It was basically five years ago, almost to the month, and it was really eye-opening. It's easy to think everything is going to happen overnight. Then you realize that life happens. Several guys I've played with over the years have moved away, and a lot of things change before success happens. A lot of musicians talk about the process of reinventing yourself. It's knowing when to pivot or find your sound and figure out ways to keep going at it. It's easy to give up.

Analogue: I'm assuming you move to Nashville because you are confident in the songs you have then. How are the songs you're writing today compare with those?

Credit: Joe Vella
Credit: Joe Vella

Joel: I feel like my songcraft has strengthened with more life material, so whether that's Nashville or Indiana, that would have happened. Nashville was learning how to grow up in the music industry and realize that you're a small fish in a big pond. One thing I've had to get over is that I've been writing music here for five years now, but at the end of the day, I had to write an album that represented me as a whole. It had a bit of Nashville in it. It had a bit of my Midwestern upbringing from Indiana. It needed to be in one package to encompass these last couple years for me.

That's why I ended up making this record self-titled. For those who haven't heard of me. it's the summation of who I am. There are some newer songs, some older songs that have been living with me for a while. That's what was so impressive to me about Chris Stapleton in that he made a record at 37, and a lot of those songs had been with him for years. That was such a powerful album because of the body of work that represented and that's what I tried to do with that self-titled album.

Analogue: That learning curve has to start somewhere. How hard was it to face some of these lessons?

Joel: A couple years ago when I was going through a rotating cast of band members, I felt very uncertain. It was easy for me to go into a dark place and think this was never going to happen and wonder if a music career was even possible.

I think there's a real inspiration for other artists in Nashville that's been cool for me for when I had one of those really dark times. I remember reading a post from one of my favorite local artists, Becca Moncari, who has been a really big inspiration for me. She was a waitress as a restaurant for several years and I saw her post that said, "It's so cool to know I could be a waitress at a taco joint for years and now my record is being released." I think she's opening for Julien Baker now. You have to lean into the inspiration, because it's too easy to think it will never work out for you.

Analogue: What do you learn about yourself going through that season?

Joel: The number one thing is a sense of being humble. At the root of all of this, the takeaway is knowing that any good thing that happens is monumental in pushing the snowball. I mean, I'm confident in the work that I make, but I'm also just so appreciative of any good thing that happens with it. It doesn't happen for everyone, and everyone is fighting for the same space. So I'm just realizing how important it is to be humble.

Analogue: I want to focus on the album because the songs are so steeped in stories. You've got personal stories but also one even about your grandmother's life, right?

Joel: Yeah, it runs the whole gamut of my life. There are stories of adolescence and the heartbreak after falling in love at a young age. There are stories of marriage and what it means to make it work when you're in some difficult times. There are also songs about facing Nashville when your friends are moving away and you wonder if you're making the right decision. Then there are songs about what it means to be in the Midwest.

People wonder what you're doing or tell you to get a real job. I've been fighting that idea my whole life, and I think that's part of my story.

You hear it a lot when you're growing up in a conventional town that you'll never make a living as a musician. It seems very head in the clouds. People wonder what you're doing or tell you to get a real job. I've been fighting that idea my whole life, and I think that's part of my story—trying to be resilient even in the face of getting older and starting a family.

Analogue: Is music an automatic place you turn to process these things—like you mentioned marital strife?

Joel: That's one reason why I love Americana is that it pulls from those country influences. There's a lot of storytelling with clear paths for the characters, and that's one thing I always liked. But with Americana, you can add some vagueness to it or add your own perspective. That's one thing I love about growing in that craft is trying to create very relatable stories but also leaving something up to interpretation.

Analogue: What's coming up for you that you can tell us about?

Joel: I was just chosen as the featured artist of the week for a local radio station called Lightning 100. Anyone here knows that it's the heartbeat of the music scene here, so being able to be featured on that is a big deal and I'm excited and blessed to be a part of it. I'll play a live performance of a couple tracks on-air along with an interview. Then there's the album release show as well as being a part of Musician's Corner, which is a festival of sorts here in town in Centennial Park. Beyond that, I just started working with management so we'll look at tour dates for late summer and early fall. That will be coming soon.