Judah & the Lion, the talented trio from Nashville, Tennessee, has returned to Summerfest to perform for their second year in a row. They hit the Harley-Davidson Roadhouse stage last night at 10 p.m.
The group formed in 2011 when they were attending college at Belmont University together, and they haven’t stopped playing since. The 2017 single “Take It All Back,” was charted #1 on Alternative Radio for three weeks, and were winners of the iHeart Radio Music Awards 2018 Best New Alternative Artist award.
Their latest album, “Pep Talks,” is a deeply personal and raw collection of new songs which came out earlier this year. We were eager to ask about its story, as well as how they guys do life together. Judah Akers (lead vocals and guitar), Brian Macdonald (mandolin) and Nate Zuercher (banjo) agreed to sit and chat while sipping on lemonade before their June 26th performance.
How did you come up with the name Judah & the Lion?
Judah: My mom kind of named it way back in the day, it stuck with me. I wanted to be a rapper when I was little—I still get to rap in some of our songs, so that’s kind of nice— she overheard me upstairs in my room, or something, rapping and she said: “Well, if you’re ever actually in a group you should call it ‘The Lion of Judah’.” Which is from the Old Testament in the Bible. When we got together this name was always in the back of my head what if we were inspired by that? And “Judah & the Lion” fit our thing a little bit more.
Is there anyone performing here at Summerfest that you’re excited to see?
Judah: One of our old Belmont buddies is playing at the amphitheater, Russell Dickerson. A lot of good bands playing on that set as well.
Brian: It’s kind of hard because everybody’s playing at the same time, because the stages are so far apart. So I feel like if we weren’t playing, we would probably go see Steve Aoki or Foreigner. We might just have to pause and listen for a second.
So you all went to Belmont together, how did you meet?
Judah: Kind of randomly, I had written some songs my junior year and I don’t know, I had an epiphany or a moment, like a vision of the songs being played with more organic instruments than the instruments I was playing with at the time. And my roommate at the time randomly knew Nate played the banjo. And then I called Nate and said “Hey, you wanna jam?” Which is kind of common at our school, people jammed with each other. And Nate knew Brian because they were in the bluegrass world together.
Who are some of your inspirations for your music?
Judah: Between the three of us, there’s so much. I feel like for all of us our family is a big influence on us as far as our musical tastes. We all grew up in different spots of the country and have different history with our musical journey. I guess a few bands for me are 50 Cent, Goo Goo Dolls, Queen, Tom Petty.
Nate: Coldplay is a band that we all really love. I like a lot of punk metal stuff like Green Day, Avenged Sevenfold, Manchester Orchestra –they’re not punk rock but that’s another one that we love.
Brian: I grew up kind of listening to Billy Joel, Elton John, James Taylor. Learning piano by listening to them play…when I was young, just kind of what I heard by default. Kind of the same with these guys we have a wide span of genres that we listen to, in high school grew up listening to rock and alternative. But the band that really influenced this record was Frightened Rabbit, just their storytelling and raw, kind of real emotion was a big part of our time in the studio and processing through the whole story.
How have your songs changed over the course of your career? It’s definitely changed sound-wise going a lot more into electronic and EDM style, is there anything else you would like to elaborate on that?
Brian: We aspire to sonically and musically be always evolving. And pressing our comfort level to create something new. But I think our message, for the most part, has remained the same; which is just we want to bring people home through music and enjoy and hopefully connect by telling stories. I think with this record, we’re excited because we feel like we were able to push that boundary more. Like, yeah, we have bluegrass instruments, but we maybe don’t sound totally like a bluegrass or folk band at all at some points.