From a purely chronological standpoint, Leland Sundries—the musical project led by Brooklyn troubadour Nick Loss-Eaton—is relatively young. But lend an ear to The Apothecary EP, or check out Leland Sundries’ live show, and it is quickly apparent that this music is imbued with qualities that belie its tender years. Loss-Eaton’s plainspoken baritone has a weathered, lived-in quality. “The Band meets Lou Reed,” is how Boston Phoenix summed up their sound. His lyrics reflect a keen sensitivity for details and characters that less-seasoned souls might overlook. Leland Sundries’ take on Americana sits comfortably alongside contemporaries like Elvis Perkins, Jay Farrar, and A.A. Bondy, yet is informed by decades of history, too.
For starters, there’s that curious moniker. It emerged during a road trip through the Deep South, when Loss-Eaton made a pilgrimage to Leland, Mississippi, the small town where bluesman Eddie Cusic resides. The octogenarian guitarist, who’d played with numerous R&B stars of his era (most notably Little Milton), was happy to spend the afternoon telling stories and playing music for an enraptured Loss-Eaton and his traveling companions. Having already seen the somewhat antiquated term “sundries” on multiple signs in that pocket of the country, Loss-Eaton fused it with Cusic’s hometown, as an homage to what the elder statesman and his life’s work embodied.
Loss-Eaton was also fortunate to work for a brief time at Smithsonian Folkways, the historic record label that has stewarded the legacies of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly, Alan Lomax, and Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. “Working at Folkways was hugely inspiring,” he admits. Already a serious admirer of gateway artists like Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, blues greats such as Charley Patton and Son House, and the rockabilly canon of Sun Records, he traveled further down myriad tributaries of American roots music during his Folkways tenure. “I immersed myself in that music, learning about Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Dock Boggs, and Brownie McGhee and Sonny Terry.”
He nurtured a love for the mythology surrounding various icons, and developed an appreciation for how the timbre of a banjo or resonator guitar can call up images from the Dust Bowl and other bygone eras. He found the words and language of these performances equally compelling. “The lyrics of those traditional and pre-WWII songs are often strange and beautiful, and it felt like listening into something familiar, yet from another world.”
In addition to Loss-Eaton’s voice, one of the most distinctive qualities of Leland Sundries’ sound is use of harmonica. When he first began cutting his teeth, Loss-Eaton tried writing songs on the piano, “but it never felt like a natural instrument to me.” Back then, his guitar skills were rudimentary—as you can hear, they’ve improved considerably—yet the harmonica seemed to come more naturally, unlocking his compositional gifts. “I wanted the harmonica to be a big part of the sound, but it’s also a stylistic choice,” he concedes. “It is a really expressive instrument, almost like another voice.”
Like many great folk songs and traditional tunes, there is an immediacy to the melodies and chord progressions of Leland Sundries’ music that easily ensnares the listener. Those hooks encourage repeated spins and, subsequently, closer inspection. Time Out New York has favorably described Leland Sundries as “oddball storytelling with a lo-fi country sensibility,” but the music’s charms run deeper. “Hey Self Defeater,” with its quiet urgency reminiscent of Dave Alvin’s “4th of July,” and the crunchy “High on the Plains,” boast compelling choruses, a sense that these songs simply demanded to be written. Yet their lyrics, rife with images of bowling shoes, cinderblock villages, and oddball tourist attractions, elevate the everyday beyond the ordinary.
“Stevedored on the main line
Unloading tires and bait
The voluptuous girl transfixed us with her wobbly gait”
Loss-Eaton adopts changing points of view, but his observational skills remain a fixture throughout his catalog. On the punchy “The Man in the Giant Russian Overcoat,” the perspective shifts along with the narrator’s unraveling perceptions of reality. “That one has the sense of a slow, suburban breakdown,” admits the author. “There is this daily routine that starts getting stranger and stranger, until by the end, the main character has sort of a nervous collapse.” With these details as plot points and leitmotifs, the songs of Leland Sundries don’t just sketch scenes, but map out curious universes that the listener can inhabit, explore and expand upon as the imagination dictates.
Striking as his lyrics are, Loss-Eaton tries not to approach his craft with preconceived notions. “A lot of what I do is done without any particular expectations of going in a specific direction.” He may compose something, set it aside, then return later to harvest just one line—or even a single word—and re-purpose it elsewhere. “I try to be as loose as I can in my writing. Then, when the final song comes together, a big part of the job is to be an editor, to pull things together and cut out the trash.” Loss-Eaton cites Pulitzer Prize-winning scribes Sam Shepard and Richard Russo as just two of his favorite writers, and holds his own wordplay to exacting standards, even as he culls the best bits from cocktail napkins and hotel room memo pads.
While Loss-Eaton has been nurturing these songs for quite some time, the making of The Apothecary EP—which features Loss-Eaton on accordion, banjo, and resonator guitar, among other instruments—happened rather quickly. It was crafted at the Creamery in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, with bassist David Kross and drummer Adam Blake serving as the rhythm section. The former dairy creamery-turned-recording studio offers certain amenities, but alas, central heat isn’t one of them. “We would do a take, and then turn the space heater on, huddle around the space heater and listen back, then do another take.”
Loss-Eaton brings the same vivid imagination that fuels his writing to his live performances, too, engaging audiences on as many levels as possible. When he plays out, he brings along his harmonica and resonator guitar, but augments his arsenal with banjo, cigar-box guitar, sometimes even a bullhorn. “I try to throw in surprises, so that somebody sitting at the bar, who might not really know or care about what I’m doing, will look up and go, ‘Oh, what’s that?’” Because no matter how much the music of Leland Sundries is informed by the past, and how well it ages down the line, ultimately, Loss-Eaton’s songs and performances are about being present, and appreciating life—as wretched or sublime or silly as it may seem—in the now.