Times of Grace’s Jesse Leach: “This Album Wouldn’t Be As Special If It Wasn’t a Full-On Torture Session Writing These Songs”

Photo by Hristo Shindov

For some bands, a decade between releases is a sign that there are issues behind the scenes; for Times of Grace, it’s par for the course. The hard-rock trio featuring Jesse Leach and Adam Dutkiewicz of metalcore giants Killswitch Engage are only now dropping Songs of Loss and Separation, the follow-up to 2011’s critically-acclaimed The Hymn of a Broken Man. But even that record came out years after it was completed, illustrating just how hard it is to make music with your love-letter band when your primary project is too big to fail.

“The album has been completed for a while now,” says Leach from his home in the Catskill Mountains. “In the style of Times of Grace, the album gets made, and then sits there until it can have the right time to come out. The last record sat on the shelf for two years — two years! — because it was a conflict of interest with Killswitch. Killswitch is the main legacy band, the moneymaker, the career – Times of Grace is the passion project. And the passion project wouldn’t have come out this year, it would have come out next year most likely, just to be convenient for Killswitch’s tour and music writing schedule. I couldn’t be more grateful, because I can ‘t wait to get this album out. The timing’s just perfect. And that’s the way that life is sometimes – you may want things to be a certain way, but life, the universe, God, or whatever you want to call it, just happens. It’s a blessing in disguise.”

One listen to Songs of Loss and Separation proves that it was worth the wait. The album is, with lack of better words, lush: every track bursts with emotion and atmosphere, and every performance sounds driven at its core. Tracks like “Mend You” and “Medusa” show off just how willing the band are to go their own way, taking a heartfelt approach to heavy music that’s not afraid to get as dark and melancholic as it needs to be. For Leach, the record’s desperate moments are exactly what make it so special — even if that means the people creating the music have to suffer for their art.

“Times of Grace albums and songs are exhausting to make,” sighs Leach. “I’m still fatigued. I pour so much of my soul into them, and it has lasting effects. And I also believe that’s why Times of Grace records can’t happen more frequently. I can’t handle it. The majority of these songs are very personal. The last one, ‘Forever,’ is a bit of a storyteller, but I think it’s something I’ve been through, and what Adam’s been through. That feeling of crazy obsession and darkness. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. This album wouldn’t be as special if it wasn’t a full-on torture session writing these songs. It’s born out of pain, but hopefully it will be able help to people.”

Times of Grace has a certain rural or organic vibe to it — does living out in the Catskills inform that?

I would say that I’m coming more from a spiritual, shamanistic, Native American kind of vibe. That’s really what I’ve been submerged in since I came up here. Getting back to Native practices, meeting a lot of healers and interesting characters up here. And just being in the woods itself kind of transforms you. So yeah, all of that definitely has a lot to do with my shift in personality, my lifestyle, and has definitely influenced Times of Grace.

Are there specific personal changes you can’t stress enough — diet, meditation, et cetera?

I did change my diet very drastically, due to allergies and health. I’ve cut out dairy, I’ve cut out gluten, I’ve cut out all meat except for the occasional fish. I’m also very healthy with my supplementing – I take sea moss and drink a lot of turmeric. I juice daily, I drink fruit smoothies, I eat a lot of raw stuff. And that started as health, and became sort of a spiritual practice as well. By clearing up my gut, I’ve cleared up my mind. It’s been great for my anxiety and my depression, and that in turn has turned my spirituality into a different thing as well. Just seeing things differently. I’ve purposely taken off the indoctrination I was raised with, much to the chagrin of my parents and some of my peers. I no longer call myself a Christian or subscribe to an organized religion. It’s been years in the making, of just not needing to have a label, and really opening my mind and looking into other spiritual practices. And being humble enough to admit I could be wrong. It’s a constant evolution, and I’ve never been happier.

It’s interesting that you’ve emerged so healthy and happy during such a dark and confusing time as the last year.

And I’d say that is a byproduct, partially, of this whole situation of slowing down, having the tour bus stop and being the most still I’ve been in my entire life. Granted, the reason why is horrible. I just can’t get a handle on what’s happening to us. And during that storm, during that craziness, I’ve found a peace that I’ve never known. And part of that is my spiritual walk, being meditative, praying more than I’ve ever prayed in my life. I’ve had moments, I’ve had days, I’ve had weeks where I didn’t have to do anything, I have a real sense of being home, which I really have never had in my adult life. A place, and a person that I can share my life with, because I’m two years into a new relationship, which is incredible. Despite all the chaos, I spent this past year working on finding inner peace. I’m still working on it, but I feel I’m at my best right now.

Did it chap you to have to sit on Songs of Loss and Separation for over a year after you finished recording it?

I think initially, there’s that feeling of, What the fuck, I want this to come out, this is my baby, this is my passion project, we put sooo much blood, sweat, and tears into this. But the more I’ve listened to this record – and for months I’ve been sitting out by the fire in my backyard listening to this record, listening to various mixes of it, Adam re-amping the guitars four or five times, finding the perfect tone – the more it’s allowed time for me to listen to it and go through a grieving process, to be perfectly honest. Some of these songs are so personal for me – “Medusa” would be a case. That song is directly about what I went through being in a toxic relationship that I had to escape. So when [the record] is over, and that last note hits and the phrase ‘Forever…’ repeats very ominously at the end, I sit in full satisfaction of. It couldn’t have happened any other way. When you lose control of something, it oftentimes will far surpass your expectations of it. And I think it’s already happening with this. I just know this album is going to help people, because it’s already helped me on my journey.

Do you draw from different wells of experience for Times of Grace? Is there a different creative mindset for writing with this band than there is with Killswitch?

I think Times of Grace feels a little bit more genuine to me, as far as who I am these days. I’m very much a closeted melancholy person, a closeted goth. I love dark things. And not for the sake of dwelling on them or being sad — there’s a certain therapy to sadness and melancholy that’s  a lot of who I am. With Killswitch, there’s a ray of light we inject into the music, and a message of hope. When you come see us live, you have a good time. Times of Grace is more of a thinking-man’s, Edgar Allen Poe, stroking-your-beard-thinking-about-the-darker-deeper-things-of-life band. That’s where I find myself more these days. That’s not to say I don’t have hope in my heart. But this album doesn’t even end on a positive note. The last song’s about an abuser. It’s written from the point of view of someone who’s so obsessed and so narcissistic that they can’t imagine living without somebody, and instead of letting them go and leaving, he (or she) is basically saying, It’s either me or nobody. We’re going to die together. So this album has touched on very dark things – depression, suicide. There are two songs about death specifically on this album. But at the end of the day, to me, that’s therapy, and I know people can relate to that. Songs of Loss and Separation – who doesn’t know about that?

It’s interesting, because the first two tracks are very melancholy and low, but “Rescue” brings in a very metallic, aggressive vibe.

It’s funny, because we had five, six additional songs that weren’t gonna make the record. We wanted the record to have a theme, to be very cohesive. So the heavier material for the most part didn’t make this album. There’ll be hopefully be an EP in a year or two that’ll feature the heavier B-sides to this. We wanted to keep this album specifically non-metallic and push further away from the style of Killswitch. But “Rescue” was the last song we wrote fore the record, and it’s actually a positive song. It’s the one song that’s on this album that’s about rebirth. It’s about love, and finding that person to help you through the dark. It’s about the woman who I share my life with now, who met me at a time when I was at my worst and gave me tough love. And I equally helped her – she was in a dark place in her life. So the song is about two broken people meeting and willing to fight through all their scars and trigger points and their pasts, to build on a future. I really wanted [that song] on there as a point of hope, and them Adam finally said that sonically it was such a nice breath of fresh air after the first two songs. So we put it in third to stir up the album and give it an interesting curve.

Is there a physical difference between this band and Killswitch for you? You’ve worked hard to refine your vocal technique over the years — do you call on a different physical style to sing for Times of Grace?

I’m continuing to develop that – it’s something that’s ongoing. And I think for me, with this project, what I was interested in doing was using the lower, more round tones of my voice. Where I sing with Killsiwtch is always close to the top of my range, and it’s been a slippery slope with me over the years without proper technique. I’m constantly sliding in and out of key. So that, having the vocal surgery in 2018, working at technique with the help of my teacher Melissa Kross, all of those things have contributed to me becoming a better singer. I also just wanted to sing differently with this project, and hear my voice in darker, more round tones. And I’ll continue to do that – it feels more comfortable, and it just adds a different color that you don’t get otherwise. When I’m at the top of my range, it gets thin, and I think if I step back to a lower tone, there’s more color, more roundness. So I’m going to sing a little deeper in general. And when I do go reach for the higher stuff, it’ll get more impact. I’m always reaching for those moments when someone will get chills from something. This way, when the aggressive stuff and higher stuff does come, it has more impact, as opposed to staying on 10 the whole time.

Publicly, lots of people think of Adam as this grinning dude in teal shorts. What’s it like working with him in such a dark, emotional project as opposed to in a straight-up metal band like Killswitch?

He’s a complicated man. The face that the public sees is just one thing. I see it as this: he’s definitely a very punk rock individual. He doesn’t like people telling him what to do, and if you do that, he’ll go against it purposefully. As much as he’s perceived as fun and funny, he has a very dark side to him as well. He carries with him a lot of melancholy, and gets depression just like I do. He just handles it differently. But we’re able to connect very deeply on a musical level, because we speak the same language, where emotion is key. The feeling is key. The one thing we share in common is the soul. You can’t replace technique with the soul – there has to be a balance between the two. I’ve spent my entire life being a soulful person with a lack of technique, and Adam has all the technique in the world, and also happens to have soul. That’s kind of rare – a lot of people who are genius, savant-type musicians tend to be a bit disconnected from certain emotions. Adam definitely has a touch of that, but at the end of the day, he likes things to move his soul. He does it by default – it’s just the kind of guy he is. And the one thing that blows my mind about him is, he’s able to multi-task. He’ll have a baseball game on, he’ll be working Pro-Tools, he’ll have three separate windows open and will be editing, and he’ll be recording my vocals with a lyric sheet. And if I screw up, and go flat or go sharp, it doesn’t matter what he’s doing, he catches it. It’s so frustrating – I can’t get anything by him! But that makes him what he is. And I do believe that makes him 100% a genius.

Times of Grace’s Songs of Loss and Separation comes out July 16th via Wicked Good Records, and is available for preorder both digitally and in various vinyl formats.

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Words by Chris Krovatin