For many of us, the prospect of becoming a singer-songwriter will never amount to anything more than an idle fantasy, but for second-year Jakob Leventhal, it has become a fully functional reality, complete with a Spotify page and PR agents. His debut single, “This Love Is Sarcastic”, has already accumulated over 24,000 streams since its release in November, and his debut album, “Oh, So Bittersweet!” is expected for release early next year. Though Leventhal comes from a lineage of musicians, he is eager to shrug off the chip on his shoulder and to carve out his own path to success.
The Maroon spoke with Leventhal in his apartment, which he has converted into a part-time work-station complete with guitars, mics, a keyboard and a recording interface.
Chicago Maroon: First of all we wanted to talk about your single “This Love Is Sarcastic” – it’s had over 20,000 streams on Spotify (as of the date of the interview). How does that feel?
Jakob Leventhal: It feels pretty weird – I was at my friend’s party last night, and someone put it on his playlist and it came on and most people in the room were singing along – it was pretty surreal. Sometimes it’s weird in a good way – I got a new message the other day from someone from Jakarta, saying he’s a new fan, so that’s great.
CM: And what is the rest of the album going to look like?
JL: The album is done – it’s actually been done for many months now. The rest of the album is in a similar vein to “This Love Is Sarcastic” – singer-songwriter, indie rock, folk rock… I don’t know what you would want to call it. It definitely hits a wider range of marks than “This Love Is Sarcastic”, though.
CM: Your Spotify bio and your website both mention how you picked up a lot of instruments by yourself from a young age. What first got you into music?
JL: I’m from a family of musicians, which you would think would help, but I would say I was resentful about that. I wanted to do stuff on my own, and I didn’t want anyone to show me how to do it, so I actually didn’t take any lessons from anyone as a way to rebel. When I was five, I started learning the guitar and piano, and when I was ten or eleven I started learning the bass and the drums. When I started recording the album, I wanted to record something where I was basically playing every instrument, which is more or less what happens on the album. I don’t play the bass on it, even though I’m an okay bass player, but I don’t think I’m good enough for that.
CM: Was there a specific moment in your life where you knew that you wanted to become a musician?
JL: I always played a lot of music, I always wrote songs. I always took it seriously but for a long time I didn’t want to be a musician just because both my parents were musicians. I always pursued different artistic endeavours – I drew a lot, I used to write screenplays in high school. And then pretty recently, like a year ago, I was busy working contracting over the summer, and I decided that I wanted to make a record and so I did it. And I was like, okay this is what I want to do.
At the end of the day, it was important to me – it is important to me – that whatever success I get from music has nothing to do with my parents, and is entirely my own version. If I make a song and record it and release it and nobody likes it, that’s fine. I just don’t want anything to come from someone else’s success.
CM: Let’s talk about “This Love Is Sarcastic”; it has an interesting Father John Misty energy where it ostensibly sounds like a really sad song, but there are moments and lyrics which come across as very tongue-in-cheek. What sort of influences does your music have?
JL: That’s a very big question – Father John Misty, of course. Elliot Smith, Conor Oberst, Bright Eyes, and so on. The Beatles obviously are huge to me—not even in terms of their songs—just in terms of their production. The Beach Boys, as well. Also, a lot of classical music and jazz – it’s easy to take from a lot of places. When I started to record the album, Father John Misty had just dropped his new album [God’s Favorite Customer] and I was really consciously making a point that I can’t just mimic this. I have to find my own style. It’s okay to utilize some of the artists, but I really made a point in the record about the sound. And I had a moment where I was recording the record when I listened to one of the songs and I was like, this doesn’t really sound like anyone but me. That was cool.
CM: Could you walk us through the production of your album? Was it a self-produced effort?
JL: It was co-produced up in New York. My father is a producer – and a very, very good producer at that – and I came in wanting to make this record. In the same vein of how I had to decide whether I’m going to play the bass or whether someone else is going to. And at that point, I decided I wanted it to be the highest quality I could, so I co-produced the record with my dad, John Leventhal. He’s also the one playing the bass. It can be a very interesting experience – it was a real push-and-pull. He would come and say something, and I would maybe disagree. We would get into it for a while just because he got very invested, as you will.
CM: And how does the song-writing process work for you? Does the melody come before the lyrics, or vice versa? And how do you choose which songs end up in your record?
JL: I can really be all over the place – a lot of times, the lyrics will come first just because I have nothing better to do. On one of the songs on the record – it might be one of my favorite tracks on the record, it’s called “Golden Glass” – I wrote the lyrics when I was on the plane to go over to my sister's place in Nashville. As I was on the plane, my phone died and I had an idea for a song so I wrote it down. When I got to Nashville, one of my sisters had a piano and I figured out the melody and the chords. But there are many other times where the guitar riff comes first – “This Love Is Sarcastic”, for example.
I try to write songs at a very high volume – the record only has eight songs but there are at least 40 songs that I’ve written for it. I recorded maybe 20 demos, and at that point I cut it to 12. And after I recorded eight songs, I felt like the record was done. It felt like a complete thing – in a narrative sense, it told a complete story.
CM: And what is the narrative that we’re expecting?
JL: It hits a lot of marks, but part of it is about growing up in New York in general. Part of it is childhood trauma and grappling with depression and relationships, and how these relationships interact with all the depression and emotions. I guess it’s about the oddities of being alive at all.
CM: You mentioned depression and childhood trauma – how faithfully do you think you can transcribe that into your music?
JL: That’s interesting – I don’t know! A lot of times when I write a song it’s not even a really conscious attempt at targeting a certain emotion. Sometimes I’ll just start writing something, and I’ll finish a line and I’ll be like, that’s what this is about. I wouldn’t have really thought of that, but it came out. I never go in being like, “this is going to be a song about my depression” because that’s kind of sad – but sometimes it just comes out that way.
CM: Do you think your audience will relate and appreciate the fact that you write candidly about these themes?
JL: If they are my audience, then I guess. But other songs like “This Love Is Sarcastic” are not necessarily about that. I try really hard not to be on one note all the time, because that emotion can be a very consuming one – for a lot of people it is. I try really actively on this record not to put out eight songs about how sad I am all the time.
CM: Let’s talk about the recording set-up in your room – you mentioned how you recorded up in New York, so how do you use this set-up?
JL: I mostly record demos here – I wouldn’t record anything that would go up on Spotify here because it’s loud outside and it’s very hard to get anything really quiet. I also record and produce some other people here in the school – Matt Williams and Miles Donnelly are two of my band mates in Blue Maroon, and I record them sometimes. I also record some of my roommates.
CM: How do you balance your career as a musician with school work? How do you find time?
JL: It’s increasingly hard – when I was recording the album it was fine because it was over the summer. And the beginning of the year was fine, but then I released the single and it very much picked up steam. It requires a fair amount of attention – I keep talking to blogs, my manager, labels, stuff like that. It starts to take a lot of time and it’s hard. I’ve definitely let some stuff slip, which is to be expected. The dream would be to not let anything slip – I’m a Philosophy major and I very much still enjoy Philosophy. I’m definitely not going to drop out, that’s not even a question. It’s just a whole extra amount of time that I have to dedicate to music, which requires some level of discipline.
CM: And I take it that gigs will also take out some time from your schedule/
JL: Yeah – I gig a lot around campus for Bar Night or whatever. Coming up in the next few months, starting in January, I’ll be doing gigs in a fair amount of indie rock clubs or bars downtown or in the North Side, leading up to the release of the album. After the album comes out I’ll play more, and in the summer hopefully I’ll be able to go on a mini tour.
CM: Where do you see yourself in the next couple of years?
JL: That depends on how the album does. After I release the album, I’m sure I’ll have a clearer sense of where I’ll be in the next few years. As of right now, “This Love is Sarcastic” is doing really well, but in the long run a single isn’t really a huge deal. If an album does well, that’d be a huge deal. I do want music to be my full-time career though.
CM: When are we expecting the album?
JL: Probably February – I actually haven’t set a formal release date. I should do that!