In retrospect, the smart move for Ted Leo would've been to quit. He can admit that now. There was never much money in being a touring punk musician, even for one as widely acclaimed and admired as him. But when the bottom fully dropped out seven years ago, leaving him without a label and few prospects, he probably should've taken it as a sign to hang up his guitar and learn to code or something.
"To be honest, I had that in my head for a long enough period of time that I probably should've acted on it," says Leo, 47, enjoying an unseasonably warm fall afternoon on his porch back home in Rhode Island. "It was a real roll of the dice. I was hand-to-mouthing it and walking a tightrope of not being able to pay rent for way longer than I should have given age and life experience. It would go so far as to say it was irresponsible."
Nevertheless, he persisted. After a long period in the rock wilderness, Leo re-emerged in September with The Hanged Man, an album he funded, with some reluctance, through a Kickstarter campaign. Going "hat-in-hand," as he puts it, to make a record wasn't something he ever imagined having to do. But if that's what was going to get it done, he had to do it—not just for the financial stability of his family, but for his own well-being. In the years since the world last heard from him, Leo struggled with more than just a stalled career. There were personal tragedies he didn't know how to deal with and secret childhood traumas he finally decided to face. He'd entered middle age, causing him to look back on and reconsider his youth. And that's not to mention the current American political crisis, which began just as his own existential crisis was cresting.
As much as the thought of pivoting into a new line of work weighed on his conscience, quitting music was never really an option for Leo. There was too much to process, and writing songs is the only way he's ever known how to make sense of the world. What he did have to do, though, was effectively relearn how to be a working artist again.
"The idea of going into doing my own next record was really frightening for me, because it'd been so long and I'd been so dejected by what I felt was a lack of support from my label," Leo says. "And I honestly didn't know if people were going to care. That was the first thing: Is this even going to be successful?"
For longtime fans, it's probably hard to imagine any Ted Leo project being met with mass indifference. In the early aughts, the New Jersey-raised songwriter established himself as one of the underground's most literate and empathetic voices. Whether singing about eating disorders or the crimes of the Bush administration, his gift for melody could make you feel like he was singing directly to you, and with a reassuring hand on your shoulder. Surely, if you heard him even once, you'd look forward to hearing from him again.
But Leo's concerns were not unfounded. The Brutalist Bricks, his 2010 album and last before his hiatus, did not meet the commercial expectations of his label, indie heavyweight Matador Records. Both sides are mum on the details, but their relationship quickly soured, and Leo got out of his contract. On top of that, two of the labels that released his earlier albums, Lookout and Touch & Go, went out of business within a few years of each other. In ways both literal and symbolic, it seemed like the independent music culture that had supported and sustained Leo for so long was starting to leave him behind.
"When we were touring on The Brutalist Bricks, that's when I really started to feel the pinch of so many aspects of the changing business," he says. "There was so much change that it became an open question, until very recently for me, about how this all works going forward."
Following that last tour, Leo mostly retreated from public view. But his issues with the industry were not the main reason he went into self-imposed exile. In 2011, his wife, Jodi, gave birth to their daughter several months premature. The baby did not survive. As he told Stereogum in the article that reintroduced him to the world earlier this year, Leo initially tried to work through his grief, but found himself creatively paralyzed. So he "chose to accept this suspension of time and hibernate." Playing with his friend, Aimee Mann, in pop-rock duo the Both helped get him writing again. But there was still more pain for him to confront. In that same profile, Leo also revealed that he had been sexually abused twice as a child, first by a neighbor, then by his piano teacher—something he hadn't even told his parents at the time of the interview.
Given those revelations, when The Hanged Man finally arrived two months ago, critics assigned the album a heavier emotional weight than Leo's other releases, which have tended to be more outward-facing and political. At first, the narrative made him bristle.
"When people say it's my most personal record and all that stuff, I always want to push back a little bit because I've always been talking about both personal stuff and political stuff all the time, usually in the same song," he says. "But then I take a step back from it and I'm like, oh, but my life has been such in the last eight, 10 years that I guess it does feel a little deeper in some ways."
Recorded in his home studio, mostly in solitude, The Hanged Man is the first album credited only to Ted Leo and not also his backing band, the Pharmacists. And indeed, it contains some gut-wrenching moments of raw emotional intimacy. On "Lonsdale Avenue," which Leo performs accompanied only by his own electric guitar, he lays his anguish bare. "I couldn't protect her from this life and all its pain," he sings of the daughter he never got to know. "We called her many things, and those she'll remain."
But true to form, Leo is never just thinking about himself. Opener "Moon Out of Phase," again featuring just his voice and the heaviest guitar tone he's ever employed, was written in direct reaction to the election, but it's not a rant against Trump so much as a clarion call to everyone affected by his presidency. While the album has fewer of the riotous power-pop anthems he made his name on, those that it does have rank with the best of Leo's career. In particular, "You're Like Me" uses a classic, heart-pumping arrangement to send a message to anyone suffering from wounds they still can't speak of out loud: "Drop to a secret that in silence you bore/You're like me, you're like me."
Now that's he out on the road again, playing with an expanded version of the Pharmacists, Leo confesses that even he is startled by how cathartic playing these songs has been, for himself and the audience. And having seen the crowd-funding model work firsthand, he's beginning to think about what's next—he says he's got a ton of leftover songs he'd love to get out sooner than later.
But the path forward still isn't totally clear to him. All he can do is take it album by album, tour by tour. That's likely fine by his fans. After all, it's better than the alternative.
"I have to be circumspect about this in the future," Leo says. "This in no way has set me up as independently wealthy. All the money went into making the record. But I am able to survive for another cycle. So we'll see how it goes."
SEE IT: Ted Leo and the Pharmacists play Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St. #110, with Ian Sweet, on Monday, Nov. 6. 8 pm. $18 advance, $20 day of show. 21+. Get tickets here.