Concert Spotlight: Interview with Judah & The Lion

Eclectic Nashville Band Electrifies Major Tri-State Venues

Nashville band Judah & The Lion is touring as the opener for Twenty One Pilots, playing January 20 at Barclays Center and January 21 at Newark’s Prudential Center. A hybrid of folk, hip-hop, and rock ‘n roll (like the title of their third album, 2016’s “Folk Hop ‘N Roll”), the act’s lead singer and guitarist Judah Akers cements the band, while intricate instrumentation follows from mandolin player Brian Macdonald and banjo player Nate Zuercher and Spencer Cross on drums.

Judah & The Lion’s commanding call-and-response single “Take It All Back” just hit #1 on the Alternative Radio airplay chart and the band plays Conan on January 12. What’s particularly special about Judah & The Lion is the act’s authenticity as musicians, not taking anything too seriously, and creating melodies with rich and varied instrumentation. These strengths can be felt on their recordings, but can only be fully absorbed when experiencing the string players’ skills live or watching and listening to Akers as he embodies a forceful frontman. Judah Akers spoke with New York City Monthly about the band’s first trip to New York, getting lost on the subway, what they love most about the city, and why fans really believe in them once they check out a show.

Judah & The Lion played a lot of festivals and smaller venues last year. What will the preparation be like leading up to these major shows?

You know the preparation is just different, a little bit crazy. I mean obviously playing a much bigger room, larger than 5,000-person rooms, it’s like a different ballgame. It’s like how do we hold the attention of the guy or the dad in the far-right balcony eating popcorn? There’s going to be a learning curve on that stage.

Your album’s opening song “Graffti Dreams” sounds like a prayer. “I want see the world change, I want to build love with this hate, I want to find gold in every person, I want to sing about hope in desperate situations.” What was going on with you and the band when you wrote this song?

Essentially the term “Graffiti Dreams” came from looking at a graffiti wall with all these spots and stuff on it. I was thinking about all the things I was hopeful for in my life. On a concrete level, it was all these dreams that I had, graffiti in my heart. People ask me all the time what’s my dream – it’s not just one dream, it’s to evoke hope and love in this world. I think that’s what we were thinking about when we wrote this song. My grandpa was battling cancer at the time, and I want cancer to die. It’s about actually doing something about it rather than dreaming it.

Though you are from Nashville, Judah & The Lion’s music combines three sounds that actually have a lot of history in New York City. The folk scene in the 60s in the Village, the birth of hip-hop in the late 70s/early 80s, and of course rock & roll. What has the response and energy been like at your previous New York City shows?

It’s kind of funny, New York, Nashville and L.A., I think because they are entertainment- based cities where the bulk of the music industry is, in a lot of ways as a performer starting out, you feel a little judged in these places.

It’s not like in a pretentious way but it’s got this demeanor that we’re not necessarily here to party with you but we’re here to see what you got. We turned the table a little bit on the last show, people were trying to have an amazing time and party with us. The last show at the Gramercy [Theatre] was so fun and the crowd was with us.

What do you and the band enjoy about playing in New York City, and do you have a particular memory from a previous show here?

We love New York. I’m a southern boy; I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, so the first time we came to the city I was like just jaw-dropped. It was kind of a cloudy day, the romance of it was a little bit down for me, but all the buildings you dream about were there.

We ended up getting lost in the subway, we went the complete wrong way. We ended up having to get back on the opposite way. We had a week in Brooklyn and a week in Manhattan and I love the energy of the city, it’s amazing.

judah-the-lion_1You are truly a force on stage. How would you describe that persona and how does it compare to what you’re like when not performing?

I always loved writing songs and singing but never worked as an artist. I never wanted to be an artist or be in a band, but then we started performing. My personality is laid back and happy-go-lucky and kind of
chill, but I started playing these songs in front of people, and they had a weird effect on me. The performing part of me is what made the songs make sense, and I believe for me music is supposed to be passionate and joyful and bring an effect to someone.

Obviously, the music is very important, but we feel that the live show is really where we can make a statement.

Why should music lovers come check out your band’s show right now?

I think that at a live show, it brings about a joy and a freedom that is attainable. And our live show is very inclusive, so it doesn’t matter what you think about the world. We love you and accept you, and I feel like at our live show there is this unifying factor where we can all be in this moment, and that’s what makes live music a super special thing today.