Written in the wake of a brain operation that nearly cost him his life, Andrew Leahey's sophomore LP, Airwaves, is as carpe diem as they come, an urgent sonic love letter channeling the 1980s FM-radio anthems he cut his teeth on as a kid.
“We didn’t have cable TV growing up,” Leahey says, “but my big brother would go over to his friend’s house with a blank VHS cassette and tape a two-hour block of MTV, commercials and all. We’d watch those videos over and over for months. I loved Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. They looked like my G.I. Joes—Springsteen was positively ripped, and they were all wearing bandanas, playing in front of these huge American flags. They looked like action heroes.”
Back then, Leahey was living in Richmond, Va., where his mom sold Mary Kay cosmetics door to door. Every day after school, he rode shotgun in her station wagon, the floorboards littered with the latest lipstick shades, the radio soundtracking their rounds. The music was always Top 40, most often the pop rock of the late ’80s: the big guitars, big drums and even bigger hooks of artists like Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellencamp and Bob Seger. These larger-than-life stars at the peak of their popularity, playing massive stadium shows to throngs of adoring fans, their videos in heavy rotation on MTV and their platinum records flying off the shelves—it was rock & roll unfolding on the grandest of scales. Their music became Leahey’s bedrock and, all these years later, the guiding force behind Airwaves, which shepherds the sounds of this golden era into the present day.
In addition to being an acclaimed solo artist featured at Rolling Stone, Billboard and American Songwriter, the Nashville-based Leahey is also a sought-after guitarist who regularly tours with Elizabeth Cook, and has backed Rodney Crowell, Drew Holcomb, Will Hoge and more. For Airwaves (out March 1), Leahey tapped multi-platinum producer Paul Ebersold, who enlisted Steelism’s John Estes and Jon Radford on bass and drums, respectively. Leahey also brought in his childhood best friend Phil Heesen III to add harmony vocals and guitar, as well as his buddy Sadler Vaden, who took a break from touring with Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit long enough to drop by the studio and lay down some guitar leads on “Start the Dance,” “We Came Here to Run” and “Workin Ain’t Workin.”
Airwaves is timeless American rock & roll that rings from sea to shining sea, a candy-apple-red Mustang convertible of a record burning up the interstate with the ragtop down. With it, Leahey refines the jangly Americana of his 2016 Ken Coomer-produced debut, Skyline in Central Time, grasping for the still-smoldering torch of Petty and Springsteen, angling confidently to assume the mantle of their unpretentious everyman sound. Unadorned but poignant lyrics carried by simple, uplifting melodies. Distorted windmill guitar strums. Triumphant swells of organ cresting like whitecap foam on the ceaseless ocean. Driving bass lines locked tight with the kick, pumping in unison like the pistons of an engine straight off a 1980s Detroit assembly line. Would-be stadium anthems loping forward, the echoing crack of the snare faithfully charting miles per song. In an era hellbent on declaring the genre doornail dead, Airwaves is the kind of record that could only be made by a true believer in the power of rock & roll.
“Early on, I shared the first mixes of the record with some industry friends,” Leahey says. “They were like, ‘This sounds cool, but rock & roll isn’t really popular right now. Are you sure you want to do this?’ I said, ‘Of course! That’s what these tunes are. And what do you mean it’s not popular? Rock & roll has been around longer than any of us.’ I have a very clear idea of what my musical strengths are, what I’m meant to do, and I have no interest in diluting that or sanding away the rough edges that make it unique and specific to me.”
Leahey’s uncompromising attitude and renewed passion for his music have a whole lot to do with his staring down the prospect of an untimely death—or possibly the loss of his hearing—earlier this decade. Requiring brain surgery to remove a life-threatening tumor from his hearing nerve, the odds of the latter were an anxiety-inducing 50 percent. “Driving to the hospital with my wife the morning of the operation, I put on Lightning 100 in Nashville. Petty's 'A Face in the Crowd' was on the radio, and it hit me hard—the production was so enveloping, and I was really cognizant of the different instruments coming from the left and right speakers. It was a gorgeous, lush, layered sound. I wanted so badly to be able to wake up after the operation and still hear music with the same appreciation I had in that moment.”
Thankfully for Leahey, the procedure was a success, his hearing was unfazed and, after a long recovery, he remains cancer free. The experience redefined what playing music meant to him. “I nearly lost my ability to make, hear and appreciate music, and that inevitably changes you,” he says. “As I got healthier, I was drawn to writing songs that celebrated life. Songs that sounded as huge and immediate as the songs I heard on the radio as a boy in 1989—which is why we called the new album Airwaves.”
One of the record’s key tracks was actually hatched while Leahey was getting an MRI. “The sound of the magnets in the machine, it was almost like club music, like techno,” he says. “I remember being in there, and this percussive sound kept echoing around my body. To me it sounded like a four-on-the-floor kick drum, and I started humming a melody to it. That became ‘Make It Last.’”
Once strong enough to return to the road, Leahey played 180 shows in 2016 in support of Skyline in Central Time. During that period, “Make It Last” was a staple in the band’s sets. “Playing that song live, with those huge, ringing chords—it felt so good on stage. We were working with an Americana label at the time, but all the slower, sadder songs I'd written no longer felt like me. I'd been to the brink, peered over the edge and escaped with my life intact, and I wanted everyone to know what that exhilaration felt like."
Still on tour, and with a fresh sense of purpose and perspective, Leahey began writing the rest of the songs that would become Airwaves. The record was cut almost entirely live in just 10 days at Ebersold’s Nashville studio, The Bakery, in 2018. As with Petty and The Boss, a lot of Leahey’s songs get at the essence of young adulthood spent on the run, and just about every last one could be a set closer or an encore. “This record is rooted in the sound of a band playing live,” Leahey says. “Everything was written on tour, with last night's show still ringing in my ears, and a lot of it was road-tested. To me, this kind of rock & roll never left. It's always on my stereo. It's always in the air. We're torchbearers of a sound that's bigger than us, and we're gonna keep the fire burning."
"His upcoming LP, Airwaves, is a celebratory mix of sharp storytelling and fist-pumping rock & roll swagger. . .For Fans of: Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Ryan Adams."
- Rolling Stone
"This is contemporary American roots-rock at its finest, championed by an ensemble that’s easily among the best of their breed."
“Andrew Leahey, the man who might just be the heir to Tom Petty.”
“A hardworking craftsman with a natural sense for honest American rock & roll.”
“Leahey has captured rock ‘n’ roll in its purest form, a band full of buddies wailing on pawn shop instruments in a garage, those thundering chords shaking grout dust off the cinder blocks, singing about girls and dreams and good times. It’s the sound of hope — for big stages and packed arenas, but also for nights that go on forever and friendships that never shatter and drift.”
"Sonic allusions to Memphis rock legends Big Star and Leahey's all-time favorite, Tom Petty."