But as everything was coming together for them, singer-guitarist Judah Akers' family was falling apart in a hail of alcoholism and affairs, death and divorce. From that tension comes Pep Talks, the trio's third LP and a hard left turn into deeply personal terrain. Knowing they had something new on their hands, Judah, Brian Macdonald (mandolin), and Nate Zuercher (banjo) took their time crafting a set of songs that not only shores up their one-of-a-kind sound — a heart-pounding whirl of folk, bluegrass, rock, hip-hop and electronic production — but takes the listener on a bracingly candid, surprisingly anthemic journey from the kind of pain that tears your whole world apart to the sort of hard-won hope that can bridge the deepest of rifts. "Up to this point, the band's message has mostly been: 'Live your best life! Pursue your dreams! Follow your heart!'" says Judah, "We had to start this record with broken-ness, with this cry that says, 'I don't want to hide this from anyone anymore. I'm going through something. I need help.'"
The first songs released from Pep Talks also open the album and they drop us right into Judah's struggle. Epic overture "Pep Talk" is a wordless swell of anxiety, woe, resolve and musical might that feeds right into "Quarter-Life Crisis." There, over a piano-pounding track that'd make Arcade Fire shout along, Judah admits to feeling alone and powerless, in need of support. With the next track "Why Did You Run?" — a Zedd-evoking trip into organic-goes-digital EDM — westart to see why he feels that way as the people he used to rely on end up in jail or absentee, leaving behind "a lost kid looking for a home he once knew." And on "i'm ok." he spells it out: his aunt has died (of an overdose), his parents are splitting up for good, and he's on the road, unable to face it all. The song goes through a transformation both aural and lyrical, from upbeat rock to moody rap as Judah first brushes off his friends' concerns, then admits, "I'm not okay, come get my pain."
"In the middle of all of this it was very hard for me to admit to myself I wasn't doing good," saysJudah. "I'd get texts from people checking in. I'd always say, 'I'm okay,' but inside I was almost annoyed, which is an awful response, like, 'Just stop asking. I don't want to think about it.' That forced me to go, 'No, this is exactly why I do need to think about it: I need to process things.' "Many of Pep Talks' songs were written on the bus after the band's high energy shows, emotions and scenes flooding Judah's head as he struggled to sleep. Empathy courses through yearning Kacey Musgraves duet "Pictures" as he writes from the point of view of his mom packing up the family home. Entropy reigns in the relentless, synth-and-banjo-driven "Over My Head" where he tries in vain to push the pain away: "Hydrate, caffeinate, medicate, repeat." Acoustic tearjerker"Queen Songs" is steeped in nostalgia, Judah recalling childhood memories of his mother back before her drinking got too bad to ignore, while its surging coda "human." (which incorporates a poem by Judah and his sister) attempts to find common ground in the present. And then there's the snarling, trap-addled, bass-dropping "Don't Mess with My Mama," inspired by an actual fistfight between Judah and his dad over the latter's affairs in the middle of all the Akers family strife.
"With these songs, we want to establish a culture of no matter what you're going through — depression, family stuff, hard times, whatever — there's always reason to move forward. At the end of the day, we're in this together." It's a thing you can actually feel as you work your way through Pep Talks. The group got closer and better as Nate and Brian encouraged Judah to share his truth, and the intentionality of his recovery was in turn reflected by the music. Similarly, once they got to the other side, the Akers too were in a better place: stronger, realer and more honest about who they are, where they've been and what's next. Because the point of sharing all this hard truth isn't to shame anyone; It's the opposite really, the idea that being broken and admitting it is unifying—fallibility is our most common trait and if we sing about it from a stage, others will sing along. To that end, if "Quarter-Life Crisis" was a cry for help, album closer "Family / Best Is Yet to Come" is an answer.Judah's mom speaks first, leaving him a teary voicemail after her first listen through Pep Talks. And soon we hear his reply before the song builds to its staggering crescendo: "You're not alone in this."
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