Ted Leo ’94 is performing at one of his smaller venues, a coffee shop in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Despite his role as headliner for the event, Leo hangs out behind the merchandise booth when not on stage, talking and mingling with the audience. “I really liked the songs from the new album,” says an excited fan, while an embarrassed Leo frantically searches for the correct T-shirt size. “They sounded really good.”
“Thanks a lot,” he replies, handing her a shirt. “I’m really glad you said that, it means a lot.” The man who can captivate an audience with driving guitar riffs and vocal dynamics on stage has an unassuming, grateful air with fans.
Leo is approaching 32 years old without a steady job, a nice house or more than a meager savings to his name. Most of the musician’s time is spent driving in a van, hanging out in smoky bars and sleeping in strange hotel rooms. Somehow, he couldn’t be happier.
Now, only after a decade in the business, a slew of critically acclaimed group and solo albums and a well-respected label backing, does the prospect of financial success seem a tangible reality.
“I have traveled the tougher road,” Leo admits. “It’s only now that I’m starting to get the kind of success that is going to allow me to pay my rent.”
Leo, a New Jersey native, began playing in bands in 1987 as a high school student, though the stakes were never high. “You were kind of just playing for your friends anyway. It was a really tight-knit, smaller scene in New York for a time,” he says.
At Notre Dame, Leo and bassist Chris Norborg ’93 and drummer John Dugan ’93 formed the group Chisel. The band built quite a campus and local following, on one occasion, selling out Washington Hall as part of a fundraiser for the homeless in South Bend. “It was really sort of encouraging back then,” Leo says. “People at Notre Dame were excited that people were writing their own songs and taking themselves seriously.”
After graduation, Chisel members headed east to the nation’s capital. It wasn’t a difficult transition, Leo says. “We did have friends (in D.C.), and over the years we had built up connections with people that helped us to sort of slide in.”
Throughout their four-year period based in D.C., the band toured throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. The trio released three albums, Set You Free, Nothing New and_ 8 A.M. All Day_, before calling it quits in 1997.
After several failed side projects, Leo for the first time considered taking a shot at a solo career. Lacking both a band and financial backing, he began writing songs for what would ultimately become his first solo album, Tej Leo (?), Rx / Pharmacists, an oddly named experimental work that would be released to moderate critical success. Leo next recorded Treble in Trouble, which highlighted both his lyrical and musical song-writing abilities.
After his move in 2001 to Lookout! Records, a dominant force in the world of underground music, Leo’s breakthrough album, The Tyranny of Distance was released. It was praised by such giants as The New Yorker and All Music Guide, which compared Leo to song-writing greats Billy Bragg and Elvis Costello. The album is a testament of the success an independent musician can attain. In Leo’s eyes, that independence is important.
“I have maintained a strong punk ethos about the way I carry out my business,” says Leo. “I have a real distaste for major labels and the popular culture of music.”
Despite the success of Tyranny, Leo cites the summer of 2002, which he spent touring in support of Tyranny, as the darkest time in his career. “I probably hit the lowest point ever,” he says. “I couldn’t write a word. Everything seemed to be going to s—-.” After picking up on the underground success of Tyranny, Rolling Stone had shown an interest in spotlighting the artist and then chose at the last minute not to use him.
But something saw Leo through his self-doubt and financial misery. “When a kid comes up to you and tells you that your record has changed his life, that’s the kind of affirmation of work and world that should be the ultimate affirmation.”
Now Leo’s fourth solo record, Hearts of Oak, has surpassed even Tyranny in popular and critical acclaim since its February release. About the same time, Leo finally was featured in Rolling Stone, as well as in Spin and as a guest on Late Night with Conan O’Brien. For a guy who admits, “All I really thought about at Notre Dame was playing guitar anyway,” such commercial frills are simply a bonus to what he calls “the kind of rewards you don’t get otherwise.”
John Fanning is a senior English major who has written for the Boston Phoenix, the Elkhart Truth and other publications.