Swedish singer-songwriter TJ Leonard was eight years old when he was given his first guitar. A gift from a loving grandfather, the guitar served as his introduction to the world of Swedish folk music and evergreens. TJ soon learned that he and his grandfather weren’t the only music lovers of their family, as TJ’s cousin – who played in a Swedish pop band of some repute – broadened his musical horizons by introducing him to pop and the blues.
Growing up, TJ sang those blues. He also fronted and played guitar for a dance band, flirted with jazz, played hard rock, sang gospel… he even dabbled in R&B. None of them, however, felt right for the young singer/songwriter.
Then TJ Leonard discovered country music – and it all began to make sense. Country music offered the opportunity to work with real instruments, and to sing about some of the things dearest to his heart – outdoor life, and the friends he shared it with. Country also shared a number of similarities with the folk music he had grown up on, and enjoyed a niche following in Sweden.
In 2010, TJ Leonard teamed up with Tex Taylor to form Chestnut. Together, the pair played at country music festivals around Sweden and Denmark. Their work was nominated twice for the Swedish Country Music Championships. Near the end of 2013, TJ embarked on a successful solo career, releasing his first album High on Livin’ to commercial and critical acclaim.
His latest single is the second single from High on Livin’. Titled “The River,” it is a love letter to the Morrum River, the place he grew up. The song’s universal themes and likable sincerity have helped secure Leonard a place on country charts around the world.
What was your childhood like, and how did it help to shape who you are today?
I had a great childhood. I spent a lot of time with my grandparents on my mother’s side. My grand dad and me spend a lot of time in his workshop building all sorts of things. We built everything from model sailboats to fishing lures and of course we played a lot of music. I also spent time on my grandparents’ (on my father’s side) farm. Us kids helped out with feeding the animals, baling hey, painting the barns and the house and such.
A more serious part of my childhood is that I went in and out of different hospitals because of my Poland’s syndrome. The right hand was diminished from birth and the fingers wasn’t separated from each other, but they managed to separate them after fourteen surgeries. That made me grow up a little faster than the average kid. A good friend of mine, gospel singer Calvin Bridges, once told me, “You have an older man’s soul.” That was twenty years ago, and I guess the difficulties with my handicap affected me to be who I am today. I don’t feel that old though. They say that rock ‘n roll will keep you young, and I guess country has the same effect on me. :)
Prior to your discovery of country music, you dabbled in many musical genres. Who were your biggest creative influences during that time?
I’ve had so many influences over the years but here’s a few: Toto, ELO, Boston, Honeymoon Suite, Stevie Wonder, Frank Sinatra, Kenny Rogers, Depeche Mode, Duran Duran among others.
How did you initially become interested in country music, and what was it about the genre that excited you and made you want to focus on creating country music of your own?
I had written a lot of pop and R&B and it was all computeriest music and I longed back to a more organic sound with real instruments. At that time, Keith Urban released ”Somebody Like You” and that banjo intro caught me and I thought, ”I have to do this!”
As an experiment, I shut out all the other genres and listened only to country, both old and new, to see how it would affect my musical language. My songs started to sound more countryish and, since then, I only listen to country. I got a question once that said, “Have you tried to go back to writing pop again? After all, you’re from Sweden.” I guess he was thinking of Max Martin, Abba and all the other great pop writers/producers. My answer was, “Yes, I’ve tried to write pop, but everything sounds like country today, so I guess I’ll stick to that.”
What do you enjoy most about writing music and performing?
Writing songs has become a big part of me. A couple of years ago I stopped writing and was focusing on my other job instead. It lasted for one and a half years then I HAD to go back to writing. It felt like I was only 50% of who I am. At the moment, I don’t perform that much. Having a family takes a lot of time. However, my son is growing so everything is getting smoother and smoother. I hope to be able to return to the stage in the near future.
What was the recording process like for High on Livin’?
As I said before, having a family and a regular job takes a lot of time so it took a couple of years to finish the album. I have a studio in our basement so when I have a little time left, I can sneak down there and lay some tracks. :) Some of the tracks, like drums and acoustic/electric guitars and fiddle are recorded at my place. Others, like pedal steel, banjo, and dobro are recorded in other studios and then have been sent to me.
What are your fondest memories involving the Morrum River, and what inspired you to capture those memories in song?
I guess meeting all those people from all over the world who came there to fish is the best part. Being local anglers, we knew what flies worked best for the season so we earned a lot of money tying salmon flies and selling them.
How have you grown or evolved as a songwriter since your early years?
Of course it takes a lot of practice to be a good songwriter, and it’s important to always learn new stuff. I’ve always tried to have content in my lyrics and when I was writing pop, it seemed to be too much, but when I found country it all came together. I write about things that happen in my life and about people around me. Nowadays, I’ll try to keep it simple, not trying to be poetic. I think the message should be easy to understand.
Which contemporary country music performers do you think will be most fondly remembered in fifty years?
TJ Leonard of course, LOL!!! It’s hard to say. The wheels are turning so fast today, so it’s hard for anyone to make a real print in music history. I guess Tim McGraw, Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley will be remembered if you ask me.
What’s the best meal you’ve had recently?
For the last couple of months I’ve been trying to lose some weight by not eating any carbs. I’m down 10 pounds now and the other day I bought a hamburger at a great place. It’s not that sophisticated but it felt like heaven to take the first bite, LOL!
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m working on my next album. Next single release will probably be in September right before my trip to Nashville. I’ll be there from the 9th to the 19th to attend the Josie Music Awards, where I’m nominated in five categories.